Counter-Currents and the Joy Quotient

The label “experimental” has been troubling me for a while now. For too many people, the word only conjures up the films of Brakhage, Mekas, Anger, etc. So much so that the very term has calcified within the minds of hipsters and film aficionados alike—ending the canon in the seventies.

Today the notion of producing experimental work is equated with inevitable marginality. And this marginality is something that the makers, curators, and critics of the experimental genre seem to honorably embrace rather than fight.

I used to say that some of the spaces inhabited by experimental media feel like ghettos. But this is inaccurate because ghettos are permeable. While there are certainly exceptions, a better analogy for gallery spaces, museums, and classrooms might be the gated community.

What can all this mean to a maker like myself who has, by the very nature of her phenotype, a narrow, splintered seat in the societal margins, whether she likes it or not? When an artist seeks funding beyond the limits of grants and an audience too large to fill the local art gallery, where is she to go? What is she to do? Is she naïve and misguided to dream of marketing possibilities that might seduce strangers to new temporal forms, pressing content into the theater of public access rather than the gallery of private mailing lists? Should she resign herself to the generally agreed upon fact that the microscreens which so lovingly exhibit experimental work exist solely for artists, intellectuals, and their benefactors? And that everyone else is, well, stupid?

I need to get clear on some things, you understand. So when this issue’s consulting editor, Shari Frilot, a filmmaker, programmer for Sundance, and founder of Mixfest, asked me to write an article about the state of experimental film today, I jumped at the chance. To this end, I sent a questionnaire to a handful of makers, writers, and programmers asking about their ideas on experimentation in moving image media and the worlds in which our work plays.

What is this thing I love so, called experimental film?

“It seems to me that the term ‘experimental film’ has two distinct (and only occasionally overlapping) meanings,” Caveh Zahedi (Signs From God, I Am a Sex Addict) answers. “The most frequently used meaning is the description of a genre of filmmaking, in the same way that the words ‘noir’ or ‘Western’ evoke a genre. This genre is typically non-narrative (although it often has narrative elements) and is associated with a school of filmmaking most commonly associated with the work of filmmakers like Stan Brakhage, Michael Snow, and Hollis Frampton. Films made in this genre can be good or bad, and they can be original or not, just as films made in the noir or Western genre can be good or bad, and original or not. But the other meaning of experimental film, and the one I prefer, is the literal meaning of a film that involves an experiment of some kind. In this sense, its determining characteristic is innovation and originality.”

The genre of experimental film, with its long, vibrant history, has come to connote a pretty crusty and rigid image, but experiments are happening almost every day in all different formats. “People in disparate fields are playing in new areas, creating a sense of cross-pollination that’s really exhilarating,” Holly Willis, editor of RES magazine, reminds me. “Similarly, artists who in the past may have turned to experimental film are now instead creating immersive video installations or interactive games with some cinematic element, or sound projects that grapple with narrative.” David Barker, filmmaker and program director of Cinematexas in Austin, Texas, co-signed Holly when he wrote, “I think that it is part of the fun to have to be constantly defining and redefining these terms [i.e. experimental film]. A lot of the great work that we see at Cinematexas doesn’t fit easily into narrative, experimental, or documentary categories.”

Yes! Experimentation in moving images influences and infects the aesthetics and politics of any culture to which it is exposed. It is a living thing. It is happening now. I advocate a name change. My favorite suggestion for a new label came from Berénice Reynaud, a professor and curator at the California Institute of the Arts. It is a phrase that describes as well as creates: counter-current. Counter-current media, counter-current makers.

From now on I’m going to use the phrase counter-
current interchangeably with experimental. For those of you who dislike this new moniker for experimental film/video, Reynaud offers a quote from Wayne Wang’s Dim Sum to assuage concerns: “You can get a girl out of Chinatown, but you can’t take Chinatown out of a girl.”

The inevitability of marginality
Jay Rosenblatt: “Popular culture has always appropriated experimental film for their own uses. When I get my yearly records of rentals from Canyon Cinema, there is usually some advertising agency that has rented one of my films.”

Holly concurs when she says, “Whether it’s graffiti art or streetwear, [advertisers] use [experimental media] to sell things while incorporating previously ‘radical’ imagery or avant-garde formal tropes into a commercial, mainstream vernacular.” What we both find more alarming than this is that, “There really isn’t a viable public conversation about alternative media right now. When we do read about any independent film practice, what we read are rags-to-riches stories about how filmmakers from nowhere suddenly score or how much a low-budget film grossed at the box office.” Alternatively, Willis points out, “Many people talk about ‘experimental’ only in aesthetic terms . . . with little regard to how the images are actually being used. There’s rarely much discussion regarding the political subtext of experimental strategies.”

“Ultimately, there is no context in the US for most people to look at ‘difficult’ work,” David Barker states, admitting the painfully obvious. “In part this may be the extremely anti-intellectual bias of American culture, which becomes much more pronounced every decade. In the US, experimental films are really of interest only to people who make them and to certain art and film curators.”

Matt McCormick, of Peripheral Produce, more pointedly offers insight into the very reasons that experimental film and video are actually essential to popular culture, as well as why it feels very often like a retreat from a broader dialogue. “I am pretty embarrassed by mainstream culture. Most of the stuff in the world that is popular is soooo bad,” he says. “In some ways the limited-ness of experimental film is actually exclusiveness, a sort of invisible shield that keeps all the dummies from coming to our parties.”

Hmmm. Trouble is, some of us are gate-crashers at these parties. Reynaud shared a similar sentiment when she said, “I don’t know why. It breaks my heart—I have found myself so often the only straight girl in a gay festival, the only white girl in a black audience, the only Caucasian in a Chinese theater, the lone European in an American avant-garde showcase.” Reynaud writes, “I have organized screenings of ‘innovative’ Chinese films that were not attended by my experimental filmmaker friends.”

Perhaps we ourselves, the counter-current makers, are responsible for our own marginality. Indeed we seem even to embrace it. Some of us are stridently proud of this. No nerds at the party, right? One man’s hipster scene is another woman’s ghetto. I, for one, do not have a romance with the ghetto. But maybe I should.

“Experimentation is never going to be mainstream, nor should it be. It is an alternative. It is about taking risks,” Jay Rosenblatt said to me. “Some of it is exciting. Some of it is subversive. Some of it is challenging. Some of it is boring. Long live experimentation. Long live experimental film!”

Amen to that, brother. But this definition basically accepts the futility in attempting to make work that does a thing most rare: Bridges gaps, creates links, softens the resistant, challenges the entrenched. Did I miss the boat? Have artists given up and set sail from Ayn Rand’s shrugged atlas without me? I feel like I’ve picked at a scab here. A forgotten, perhaps even unnoticed rupture between the ways in which artists who make moving media define their work and the way in which this work creates value for them and for others.

Shari Frilot senses that today’s counter-current media may well be resting at a precipice similar to that of independent film in the early nineties. More and more often, programmers like Barker and Frilot are seeing work that blurs narrative and experimental. And these films are struggling to find screens or to stay on them for longer than a blip once they get there. If counter-current makers cocoon ourselves with the concept that exclusivity equals value, do we fail to force openings for exciting films like Joey Cutis’ Quattro Noza? (See page 15 for more on this film.)

Now “indie” films win Oscars. Indie film is a monster. “The Minotaur was considered a monster,” Reynaud reminds me, “because he was a ‘hybrid’ being—a man’s body with a bull’s head. Avant-garde/experimental film may have produced such hybrid collages that explode the boundaries of what was possible/permissible. I welcome the monsters that were, and the monsters to come.” So let’s bring it!

Counter-current media and commerce
Matt McCormick: “I never know if I should write ‘filmmaker’ or ‘artist’ as my profession on my tax forms.”

Which brings me to this: A call for action rather than satisfaction. A request for visibility rather than exclusivity. The reality is that the seminal experimental feature film Poison, of Vachon and Hayes, would not be distributed today. But that doesn’t mean its modern equivalent in terms of risk, innovation, and counter-cultural significance would not find a place in theater.

Caveh breaks it down like this, “The numbers of people who have to want to see any given film for a distributor to justify the enormous marketing costs involved in promoting it requires that a film be overwhelmingly enjoyable to watch by a large enough number of people for the film to be profitable. Run Lola Run was enjoyable to watch for a large enough number of people, and innovative to boot. So was Amelie. So was 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould. The problem isn’t how ‘experimental’ a film is, but how enjoyable a film is to a large enough number of people. Also, feature-length films require a much greater amount of enjoyment quotient to keep people engaged for ninety minutes than short films require.”

I dig this. I will henceforth refer to Caveh’s speculation into the formula for big screen experimental movies as The Joy Quotient. But why, you may be asking, fixate on the mass distribution, commercialism, and mainstreaming of experimental film? Why? Why?

I think it’s because I came of age alongside hip-hop. I have yet to hear a sound as devastatingly innovative, arresting, and versatile as a needle scratching vinyl. I have watched the reign of DJ’s over dark basement dance floors transform into blinding platinum bling-bling MC’s. And I’ve reveled in every bit of it because I witnessed the margins devour the center. Hip-hop is a monster, and you know how Reynaud and I feel about monsters. Now, many people think that this music is horrible, the values are debased, blah, blah. Yes, some hip-hop MC’s invite severe ridicule even while the very beats upon which they lay their lyrics continue to innovate the lexicon. Along those lines we could debate the merit of several canonized (hell, sainted) filmmakers from the sixties.

I offer a challenge to the bold, brave, innovative, experimental counter-current community of makers whose work provokes, reveals, incites, inspires and, most importantly, engages. [Yes, that’s you.] Reader, take a close look at The Four Pillars of Hip-hop (breaking, spinning, rapping, and graffiti) and consider, whether you ever listen to the music or not, just how much this wave of musical/cultural innovation has directly engaged you. Love it or hate it, hip-hop has asserted itself as a force to be reckoned with. I believe that counter-current makers across the globe, across different media, have the power to be such a force. I believe that the masses are waiting.

I told Shari about the questionnaire I sent out to my colleagues, and my sense that questions about mainstreaming versus marginality were provoking some subtly resentful responses—as if the desire to broaden the audience for counter-current work is somehow antithetical to experimentation’s very nature. Here’s an example from Reynaud, who eloquently states, “We are involved in a contest about who is going to control, or seduce, or gently convince the hearts and minds of our contemporaries. . . . [There are] many experimental artists who are constantly wondering whether or not they should court the mainstream or stay in the margin, and what is the best way to reach their audience. . . . Hollywood executives know exactly what they want—control over their audiences. They are not about to willingly share this control with us.” But she hopes, as do I, to see broader mainstream forms of representation as currently being explored in works like those created by Rainer, Arnold, or Morrison.

Frilot also mused on the fact that modern audiences recognize the difference between authentic interventions into conventional media tropes and the packaged, calculated, commercial ones. And they resent the commercially appropriated corruption. In other words, audiences are ready for the real shizizat. When I told her that I couldn’t accept the empowering loci of the ghetto any more than a hip-hop artist could, she pointed out that “the art world’s rules of commerce rely on exclusivity, whereas the film [and music] world’s rules of commerce rely on mass numbers.” Within art commerce, the more limited the creation of a particular object, whether it be a Jasper Johns print, or a Matthew Barney print, the more valuable the object. In film, value is defined by numbers sold, festivals won, box office dominance, etc. Since most experimental work has operated [until fairly recently] within the fringes of the art world, I believe that moving-image artists have accepted, without much examination or reflection, a rarified exclusivity even though the very nature of film, the way in which it is designed to be watched, the temporal influence it holds over the watcher, and the costs of production, beg for broadband participation.

There was a time when hip-hop was thought to be nothing but a gimmick, in the same way that Godard’s jump cut is now abused as a gimmick. What’s the difference between the break beat and the jump cut? They both created a resonance within their audiences so strong that they will forever remain part of our vocabularies. Why are hip-hop artists paid and experimental filmmakers beggars? Because of the joy quotient, baby. DJ’s have nothing but love for their audiences. Last Night A DJ Saved My Life—when was the last time a song was dedicated to Godard? DJ’s dreamed of spreading the love to ears that were assumed deaf to the break beat.

Experimental filmmakers appear to have a certain amount of resigned and patronizing contempt for their potential audiences, the kind of snobbery that is ruthlessly mocked in mainstream films. We artists tend to wrap ourselves in the assured cloak of intellectual superiority. Here’s an example of a commonly-held belief among counter-current makers as offered by David Barker when he explains that “marketing avant-garde work does not depend on the audience ‘enjoying it’ but on other factors which tell them that it is something important to see.” This attitude is something we inherited from a world where people spend millions of dollars on a single canvas covered in paint because the work is important. Then we ridicule the industry for spending the same amount of money on a product that will then generate ten times that much because thousands of people will access it. We inherited the notion of exclusivity as something linked to our dignity as artists.

Is the absence of pleasure a badge of honor? I’m with Emma Goldman, folks.: “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution.” The thought of Master P selling his demos out of the trunk of his car in New Orleans fills me with pride because there is an artist who valued his work enough not to allow its value be determined by others. Then I think of Craig Baldwin, salvaging and archiving slug footage, then mutating it into gems like Spectres of the Spectrum, and I am grateful that we makers love our medium enough to protect it from the people who find it impenetrable. But let us love it a little more by looking at ways of increasing our audiences, the size of our screens, the sites of our dialogues, and the breadth of the label “experimental” itself.

Let us, as we have always done, take our destiny into our own hands, define value for ourselves, and look to new models for shaping the destiny of counter-current media today. Yes, there are institutions, hip scenes, audiences, galleries, and an ever-smaller number of funders who create microspaces for the ideas and images of moving-image counter-current artists. Are the trials of production so exhausting that we passively rely on these venues rather than forge environments that honor the form rather than degrade it [i.e., those awful closets they like to construct in museums/galleries to show poorly projected videos]? Or is the notion of hegemonic domination by the innovative and the probing just as frightening and reprehensible to us as what we have now: The commercial, tyrannical reign of the intellectually lazy and aesthetically stupid? Matt McCormick says no: “I always say that I just want to be doing the same things, just at a slightly higher level. When a Peripheral Produce tape comes out, I wish it would sell two to three thousand copies, not the two to three hundred copies it sells now. I wish I could pay myself and perhaps a part-time employee for the work put into Peripheral Produce. As for my films, it would be nice if they were financially viable enough so that I didn’t have to ask for favors all the time, so I could pay myself and crewmembers, stuff like that. . . . It would also be nice to be on the cover of popular magazines.” Right on, Matt. Power to the makers. Joy to the world.

About :

Cauleen Smith is a filmmaker currently living in Austin, Texas, for the sole purpose of teaching and making more experimental films. Se also makes narrative features. Her current academic project is a DVD collection featuring film and video makers of the past and present. If this article pissed anyone off and they want to continue the discussion, she can be reached at