Expanded Cinemas Exploding (in Austria and Elsewhere)

A new realism characteristic of art in the 1960’s superseded the abstraction of post-war years with its multi-layered metaphysical depths, rising to the surface of social and political reality by means of new technologies and materials. Novel associations were sought, especially between different art forms. Film became an important element as a technical medium in Pop Art and Happenings, especially in the USA -– even including experimental film which characteristically had been an isolated player in the art world. Since the early 1960’s the Happenings staged in New York by Robert Whitman, Carolee Schneemann and Aldo Tambellini („Electromedia Theatre“) consisted of an interaction between performance and film projection. They were conceived as visual, non-verbal theater pieces. As of 1966, E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology), founded by Billy Kluever and Robert Rauschenberg to nurture the collaborative work of artists and technicians, assumed an influential role. It led to a large number of technical, electronic and other diverse media projects.

In 1965, Stan VanDerBeek offered a related form of film presentation in which the spatial integration of the audience was a central issue, utilizing a dome-shaped projection space for his Movie-Drome. And the following year, the multi-media event of Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable integrated music, dance, live performance and the light effects of diverse projections to create a psychedelic „Gesamtkunstwerk,“ realizing the liberating goal of art to break the boundaries of accustomed forms. The opposite of these sensuous, experimential spaces and their thirst for acceleration was presented by the Fluxus Movement. The Fluxus films were characteristically short and produced with simple means. They offered an intellectual, formally conceptual, minimalist, and contemplative approach which often manifested an ironic examination of the film medium itself.

In the Summer of 1966, a special edition of the journal Film Culture appeared under the title Expanded Arts. All forms of filmic alternatives, later termed „film happenings“ in Europe, were subsumed under the category of „expanded cinema“, including popular multi-media events and light shows, and the neo-Dadaist manifestations of Fluxus.

In preceding years, mere reports let alone an actual knowledge of the New American Cinema had led to an artistic attention in Europe. Warhol’s marathon films roused as much interest as the sexual freedom of the underground. Already as of 1958 early New American Cinema films were shown at the 2nd Experimental Film Festival organized by the Belgian Cinémathèque in Brussels. In 1964, a selection of  30 films toured European capitals, a second, enlarged program came to Vienna in 1967. At the third Experimental Film Festival of 1963/64 in Knokke, the large number of American films outdid a still humble European output. At the next Knokke Festival of 1967/68 a stonger European film avant-garde diminished the ratio of Americans to one third of the event. Multi-media „Happenings“ by Americans could not travel to Europe for technical as well as financial reasons and consequently remained largely unknown. Expanded Cinema was not a topic of discussion. The Dutch staged some filmic events and presented rudimentary conceptual forms, but not one of them could afford an equivalent to the complexity of the American projects.
A critical topic at Knokke was the political significance of art. Leftist students not only attacked feature films, but also denounced experimental films as escapist and conformist. Meanwhile, European filmmakers had their first opportunity to get acquainted with one another and consider new cooperative alternatives. In fact, Knokke got things started. While the London Film-Makers‘ Co-operative had already been founded in 1966, based on the New York Film-Makers’ Co-operative, similar organizations were now established in Amsterdam, Hamburg and Vienna.

Immediately after Knokke in January of 1968, the Austria Filmmakers Cooperative was founded by Ernst Schmidt jr., Hans Scheugl, Kurt Kren, Peter Weibel, Valie Export and Gottfried Schlemmer. In succeeding months they were joined by Marc Adrian, Otto Muehl and Otmar Bauer. Over the course of 1968, several filmmaker meetings served to present and view new films made by European filmmakers. The two largest gatherings took place in February in Hamburg, and in November in Munich. In March, filmmakers Wilhelm and Birgit Hein together with others founded X-Screen, a cinema for independent film in Cologne. X-Screen opened with a program of works by Viennese filmmakers.

„As the smallest group,“ wrote Birgit Hein, „the Austrian cooperative had the most coherent character and could stage the most effective show.“[1]  As a group within a highly conservative environment, she said, the Austrian Filmmakers could pursue goals of cultural politics with greater vehemence and were able to collaborate artistically on a number of fronts.

This collaboration had already begun the year before, in January of 1967, when a film club in Vienna invited Kren, Schmidt jr. and Scheugl to show their films. Peter Weibel opened the program with an Action Lecture and presented Nivea as a „direct commercial film“. For Action Lecture No. 1, Weibel stood in front of the screen reading a theoretical text aloud while 8mm films were projected onto him. For Nivea he held up a Nivea beach ball while standing before the screen in the flickering white light of the projector accompanied by the sound of a camera motor played by a tape recorder. The intention behind both Actions was to release constituent elements of film – light, sound, camera, projector – from their illusionistic unity and to reconstellate them. It was on this occasion that Weibel first formulated the basic principles of his artistic concept of reality. He and Valie Export, with whom he lived and worked, went on to demonstrate this concept in a rapid succession of various Actions and projects in 1968: „The notion of reality does not exist for the filmmaker. What is given to the filmmaker is not nature but the film material. The decisions the filmmaker makes within the realm of celluloid possibility result in the film.“2

Weibel’s position lent a different slant to what P. Adams Sitney two years later would term „structural film“3. For Sitney, and generally in America and Europe, structural film essentially implied films that were not determined by narrative guidelines but rather by formal issues of their own construction. The form these films take is shaped by their predetermined structure. First generation avant-garde filmmakers in Vienna had already composed film scores according to this principle in the 1950’s, namely Peter Kubelka, Kurt Kren und Marc Adrian. For the next generation of filmmakers in the 1960’s – including Kren –­ other parameters became important. In their their avant-garde film encyclopedia Eine Subgeschichte des Films (A Sub-History of Film), Scheugl and Schmidt therefore introduced the concept of „material film“4. This term implies a different direction, departing from a structural strategy and approaching the open forms of Happenings, which in Vienna were shaped by actionist Otto Muehl’s idea of Material Action. Just as Muehl transformed the human body into the material of his Actions, the return of film to its material components led to new signifying strategies within an altered context. This was not only the aim of Expanded Cinema but also determined the anarchistic methods used by Ernst Schmidt jr. Like Kren, Schmidt jr. filmed some of Muehl’s Actions. He messed with the material by painting on it, scratching and punching holes in the very celluloid of films such as Einszweidrei (Onetwothree, 1965-68), Filmreste (Film Scrapings, 1966-67), Weiss (White, 1968) and Tonfilm (Sound Film, 1968).

 These artists did not want to surrender to the challenge raised by the camp of leftist students in Knokke to take a political stance in art – they wanted to face it head on. They were unanimous: Art as an ethical or moral calling had long since been exhausted as an idea and was ineffective. Far greater potential rested in gaining a distance to every kind of language that held or sought power.

The investigation of language use has a long tradition in Vienna. It penetrated the art world with the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein and found further ground in the late 1950’s with the poets of the Vienna Group, including Oswald Wiener who participated with Otto Muehl, Peter Weibel and others in various Actions. Like Wittgenstein, Wiener and company saw the examination of language as an elemental investigation of the human being, and they sought new forms of expression to modify language and thereby, change the individual’s world view.

Weibel perceived reality as the ruler of language – and language administered by society as the ruler of reality. Once this kind of control is recognized, the repressive authority of language must be rebelled against. Karl Marx had pointed out that language is the expression of consciousness and therefore a product of social conditions which are to be changed. The rebellion of art was not directed against the economic foundation and its political superstructure but rather against its instruments and therefore remained an act of subjective consciousness raising. Language here stands for all forms of expression, including the imagistic language of film. „Language is determined through the character of its sign, the construction of sentences and through the conditions of their transformation. All of this depends upon agreement and agreements are freely made. The secret of film syntax is nothing other than just such a freely chosen resolution as to the elements that constellate ‚film‘. I can take any number of accessible elements from that constellation and redefine their usage.“5

In the latter days of the hippie movement in America, theoreticians like Gene Youngblood identified Expanded Cinema with a „New Age“ – a new culture of community, facilitated by a breaking of media boundaries, where „art, science and metaphysics are reconverging.“6 The Austrian filmmakers were far removed from this addiction to harmony. They were not interested in a „synthaesthetic synthesis“ of technical concepts leading to a universal language or, what is more, an „oceanic consciousness“; nor were they in search of the „pansexual universe“ that Youngblood believed he discovered with Andy Warhol’s scene.7 In films, expanded cinema actions and theorectical essays they instead sought an analytic approach that would not accept the idea of „reality“ as „an invisible environment of messages“8. Expanded Cinema offered a broad bandwidth of possible investigations into the vocabulary and accordingly, syntactical connections available to film. This included works and projects that playfully and with apparent didactic rigor made film production or its presentation their topic, and sought to confront the audience. In this respect, their work resembled Fluxus films and actions which additionally had the great advantage of being inexpensive to produce. Their highly theoretical underpinnings required strategic costuming, while on the other hand, some actions demanded a theoretical lining in order to avoid being seen as banal.

One action by Valie Export entitled Abstract Film No. 1 (1968) was reminiscent of pre-cinematic light art. The image on screen arose from reflections created by a flashlight aimed at water running over a mirror. The meaning of the material displayed by the „film“ was more relevant than what appeared on screen.

The idea of the editing process was taken up by Export and Weibel in Cutting, demonstrating the convergence of mediation and reality in the sense of slicing and opening: A scissor cuts the window of a projected house facade „open“, making the reality behind the window visible, but also Weibel’s body is laid bare by a cutting open of his clothing and a cutting off of his body hair. The technical possibility of slow motion was realized in reality and conveyed to the audience with Der Kuss (The Kiss) and Schuetten (Pouring). In Splitscreen – Solipsismus a mirror effected a boxer fighting with himself.

For Ernst Schmidt jr. and myself, film also meant film history itself. In Hell’s Angels, Schmidt jr. folded film programs into a flock of paper airplanes that he let sail into the „movie heaven“ of the theater, throwing their shadows across the screen, bright with the projector’s light. He dedicated the film to Howard Hughes who had produced a movie by the same title, directed by Howard Hawks. Another one of cinema’s greats was referenced in hommage à alfred hitchcock, a project I undertook in the form of a „movie environment“. The individual viewer is lead to the end of a passageway where a steel plate is charged with a high voltage current, as he or she is expressly warned. As with Hitchcock’s heroes, their life experience has not prepared them to decide how far they should engage in the adventure. The case is solved upon stepping onto the plate.

The importance of confronting the audience is made clear by considering that not only Weibel and Export, but all the Coop’s founding members sought to directly engage and challenge the public. The inclusion of the viewer in the event had its deceptive side, since the participation offered did not assure the kind of consumer satisfaction that comes with cooperation. Instead it was far more likely to manifest a breakdown of such expectations. If anything, the aggression that surfaced during some of the actions was supposed to make people insecure about their position as faithful participants within the emerging art event, if not drive them away entirely. The refusal to include public participation in a symbolic order of art was supposed to move it beyond its passive irresponsibility, leaving it to the insecurity of an open-ended concept of art, without the guidance of the artist.

The breakdown of audience participation and the deceptive security of its promise was thematized by Weibel in his Action Lecture No.2. It was performed in Cologne in March of 1968 and served to introduce his and Valie Export’s first appearance in Germany. Action Lecture No.2 was a technically expanded variation of his first Lecture that had taken place in Vienna the year before. As in the first performance, several 8mm films were projected onto his body and onto the projected image of him on-screen. This time the audience could „control“ the light of the projector as well as the sound, which he carried on his person in the form of a portable tape recorder, by shouting. The yelling had to get loud enough to be registered by a light dependent resistor which in turn signaled the light and sound machines. But under these conditions of noise and bright light, Weibel’s speech was barely audible and the images projected onto him were hardly visible. The participation promised absurdly led to a communication breakdown: „…in the automated closed circuit of volume, the patient or state cripple experiences the nausea of his communication, the gear shift of our democracy: tautology or antinomie, affirmation or annulment, sink or swim.“ 9 For Instant Film, Weibel and Export distributed pieces of transparent PVC foil to the members of the audience who were supposed to make their own art by looking through it and framing a picture of their choosing. However, this self-determined film image only confirmed the world view they had always had. The freedom of choice was worthless. The illusory nature of this freedom was also clearly revealed by Export’s Ping Pong. An 8mm film casts shifting spots on the wall, which the player is supposed to hit using a racket and a ball. What is invitingly introduced as a „play film (feature film)“10 is in fact „a provocation of motor reflexes and reactions and these are not intelligible or emotional. The authoritarian character of the screen as a manipulative medium could not be exposed more clearly than this: No matter how much the viewer tries to be part of the game, his status as a consumer is hardly changed.“ 11

The title of Weibel’s Glanz und Schicht des Zelluloids (Splendor and Emulsion of Celluloid) includes a pun: The German word „Glanz“ speaks to the shiny base side of the film strip and would literally translate as „shine“, but here is translated as „splendor“, to play upon the title of Honore de Balzac’s „The Splendor and Misery of Courtesans“ as in Weibel’s title. The filmstrip’s emulsion and shiny base were alternatingly edited together, and accordingly the perforation side of the film was intermittently on the wrong side. The film thereby kept loosing its loop in the projector and got ripped, each time losing footage until it was consumed at the end.

Ja/Nein (Yes/No) by Ernst Schmidt jr. also expresses in its title the contradiction between fulfilment and denial of an expectation. The film shows the curtain of a movie screen opening and closing, while the actual curtain opens and closes at the same time, in synch with the projected film. The film, that we would see once the projected curtain is open, will never start. On another occasion, Schmidt jr. promised nothing short of a Schoepfung (Creation), but without being able nor desiring to live up to the sophistication of an artistic act. First he showed a blank screen by running clear leader through the projector while he drew upon the film with a felt pen as it wound onto the take-up reel. Subsequently the result was presented to the audience. Schmidt’s ironic commentary: „It was not difficult to get into a discussion after this very minimal film work, although it was not that instructive for everyone.“12

Stephen Dwoskin viewed the contribution Gottfried Schlemmer made to the Munich gathering of filmmakers with humor: „Gottfried Schlemmer showed a film where the audience of filmmakers knew exactly how long to stay out of the cinema, yet while doing so experienced the film. This was 8h01 – 8h11, a 10-minute film of a clock running continously for ten minutes. Everyone waited outside looking at their watches for ten minutes and then went back in.“13

Kurt Kren presented the expanded cinema action White – black at New York’s Judson Gallery in May of 1968. A film projector cast white light onto a screen while a tape recording was heard endlessly repeating a Mao quote. At the same time Kren was busy spanning strips of film across the entire space of the room where they were ultimately wound around the projector to be burnt and destroyed.

I conceived zzz : hamburg special for the 1968 Hamburg Film Show. I gave Ernst Schmidt jr. a spool of thread to take with him to Hamburg. He was supposed to let it run through the projector instead of a film so that the moving shadow of the thread was seen on screen in CinemaScope. This resulted in the first ready-made-film and at the same time, „the last film in film history,“ as I announced: It was to put an end to all further filmmaking as zzz was then and ever since guaranteed its place at the very end of every alphabetical listing of film titles. The duration of the show depended upon the patience of the audience, while the movement of the thread and consequently its shadow on screen was left to the projectionist. zzz: hamburg special was selected by the German journal Film as one of the ten most important films of the year 1968; the collaboration of the projectionist was expressly acknowledged.

Austrian artists not only strived for viewers, they targeted also the media. Films and actions only became existent through their recognition. Artistic provocation thereby won the significance of a political demonstration. In 1968, the press was glad to get in on the scene. The most aggressive action to which the public was subject happened at the Munich Filmmaker Meeting in November 1968 at a cinema. Weibel gave it the fitting title of Exit. Export, Kren, Schmidt jr., Scheugl and Schlemmer set fire to missiles and firecrackers attached to a screen consisting of aluminum foil. The smoking and spark spraying projectiles flew into the audience while Weibel shouted out texts about the aggression of the state and society against the freedom of the individual. As was to be expected, the public fled for the exit. Besides ending as planned, the real success of the action transpired when the press gave it extensive coverage („Go Ahead and Shoot at the Audience!“).

However, the reverberation of this action in the media was far exceeded by the Tapp- und Tastkino (Tap and Touch Cinema) staged by Valie Export and Weibel the day before at a public square in Munich. A miniature cinema with stage curtains was strapped to Export’s bare chest, with an opening only for two hands. Instead of being in the darkened cinema, the visitors had to enjoy their film experience in broad daylight and in front of everybody. The direct, haptic experience held the promise of unalienated sexuality, yet was interrupted after 12 seconds by Weibel with a megaphone, in order to guard against a relapse into the passive consumerism characteristic of conventional cinema.

I myself staged two actions with the intention of raising sexuality into the public domain, aiming at the same time to motivate the public to take an active role in the process. One of these actions took place in Munich as well. Sugar Daddies was a film of writings and drawings I shot off a toilet wall in the University of Vienna. This film was subsequently screened on the wall of a toilet in the Munich Kuenstlerhaus. At another occasion I filmed the public screening and edited the new material into the existing film. Theoretically, the sugar daddies thus could have gone public forever.

In Der Voyeur (The Voyeur) I stood in front of a full size movie screen with an 8mm projector and screened a pornographic film. The image was so small on the giant screen that it could not be recognized from the audience as more than a small square of light. Whoever wanted to see the film had to acknowledge their role as a Peeping Tom by joining me on stage.

We were unable to realize many projects for technical reasons. Such was the case with Testfilm as planned by Export, Kren, Scheugl, Schmidt jr., Schlemmer and Weibel in 1968, to test the attention span of the audience. The participants were to film each other according to a sign system agreed upon in advance, albeit with built-in mistakes that were supposed to be discovered by viewers who would thereby win prizes. The project failed because it was impossible to locate six cameras that were available at the same time.

The contradiction between artistic and political demands and what was actually possible to realize lead Weibel and Export to formulate a series of utopian projects. These were aimed at enhancing the senses and subjugating the technically prepared individual to the terror of surgical interventions. Such was the case with two projects among several: Weibel’s Lasermesser (Laser Knife) and Export’s retinal radiation in Proselyt, both realized yet a further escalation of the potential aggression of Exit. Not without reason. The filmmaker’s situation was precarious. Public agencies not only lacked support, they paid negative attention in the form of bans and legal trials for „creating a public nuisance“, among other, similar charges.

A multi-media expansion that had long since succeeded in the US was first implemented in Austria as of 1969: Weibel and Export turned to video and television. In 1970, they were represented by video works and tele-actions at the Underground Filmfestival in London. Their tele-actions transformed expanded cinema with video etc. from a projection system to a general picture processing and generating machine, as Weibel wrote in his „Videology“ program on the occasion of the fifth and last Knokke-Filmfestival of 1974/75.14 In 1969 the production of fims, public appearances and actions by the Vienna filmmakers rapidly declined and by the following year, the brief but explosive period of Expanded Cinema was over.

 

1 Birgit Hein: Film im Underground. Frankfurt/M-Berlin-Wien 1971, p. 141.
2 Peter Weibel in program notes, quoted in: Hans Scheugl: Erweitertes Kino. Die Wiener Filme der sechziger Jahre. Vienna 2002, p. 85.
3 P. Adams Sitney: Structural Film, in: Film Culture No. 47, 1969
4 Hans Scheugl and Ernst Schmidt Jr., Eine Subgeschichte des Films. Lexikon des Avantgarde-, Experimental- und Undergroundfilms, 2 volumes (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974).
5 Peter Weibel: Nimm eine Handvoll Zelluloid (Teil 3), in: Film 11/1969, abridged.
6 Gene Youngblood: Expanded Cinema, London 1970, p. 45.
7 Ibid., pp. 77, 81, 92 und 117.
8 Ibid., p. 45.
9 Peter Weibel in: P. Weibel (Hg.), Valie Export (Mitarbeit): Wien. Bildkompendium Wiener Aktionismus und Film. Frankfurt/M 1970, p. 258.
10 The German word for feature film is „Spielfilm“, which literally translates as „play film“.
11 Weibel and Export, 1970, p. 262.
12 Ernst Schmidt jr. quoted in: Linda Bilda (Ed.): Ernst Schmidt jr. Drehen Sie Filme, aber keine Filme. Vienna 2001, p. 127.
13 Stephen Dwoskin: Film Is. The International Free Cinema. New York 1975, p. 89.
14 Peter Weibel (Hg.): das offene werk 1964 – 1979. Katalog. Graz 2006, p. 689.