James Benning Ruhr

James Benning's Ruhr

The first creative challenge faced by the inaugural class of Master’s students in Experimental & Documentary Arts at Duke—the first MFA degree to be offered at the university—was more practical than artistic. Students were assigned a giant room in the former university carpentry shop to use as studio space, and they had to come up with a method of sharing it. They assembled dividers, but these didn’t make the room sufficiently private for some students, and not everyone used it. But this is indicative of how much the class, which enrolled in 2011, was involved in shaping its own program. The 15 student filmmakers effectively taught their instructors, who until then had only worked with undergraduates, what they wanted in terms of their critiques, and they joined in discussions about how their course sequences should be structured and, in many cases, who should be teaching what courses. Not surprisingly, the students became an extraordinarily tight-knit bunch. They assisted with each other’s projects and gave feedback, and, because most came to Durham from out of state, they also formed their own core social world. What could have been disastrous in another program has continued to work well at Duke: the students’ hands-on approach, and a faculty responsive to their input, has made the fledgling program unusually strong. Despite graduating only two classes of MFAs to date, many alumni have shown work in film festivals, had solo exhibitions in galleries, and gained university teaching positions.

The story at Duke is not unusual for schools that train students in the making of experimental film, whether art schools like Mass Art, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), CalArts, and the San Francisco Art Institute, or universities and colleges that offer studio art instruction, such as Duke, Harvard, the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), UC San Diego, and Bard, at the undergraduate or graduate level. These are what programmer Mark McElhatten calls “places of freedom and protection,” where students can try out their ideas in relatively supportive environments. Often they are a world apart, located in the woods of upstate New York like Bard and Binghamton, or forming small enclaves within dense urban centers like SAIC, but they also leverage their isolation with visiting faculty and touring filmmakers. For faculty, too, themselves often working artists and filmmakers, such places provide security, particularly in the form of steady employment.

Invariably, some schools stand out. There’s a perception, not entirely unfounded, that certain programs are overrepresented in experimental film festivals or prestigious grant recipient lists. Though many talented filmmakers are certainly drawn to and trained at places like Bard and CalArts, their work can appear to dominate the festival circuit. It’s hard to say whether this lopsidedness is a result of unambitious selections, favoritism, the excessive influence of certain programs and faculty, the quality of the films, or something else entirely. Certain aesthetic trends might at times seem prominent—a year or two of talky essay films, a wave of experiments in durational attention—and it can be tempting to pin this to the common denominator of one MFA program. Reputation, of course, matters, and the standout programs are often built around renowned faculty members. Well-established filmmakers like James Benning at CalArts, or Peggy Ahwesh at Bard, attract a self-selecting intake of students, in part because they themselves continue to make work that circulates widely on festival and art-world circuits.

I suspect, however, that it would be difficult to discern the imprimatur of a particular school or teacher if festivals took the approach of a blind taste test and left off the names of filmmakers from their programs. Those anxious about influence may be less concerned with individual schools, stylistic or otherwise, than taken with a more general hostility toward art instruction as a whole. As exemplified in Chad Harbach’s recent book on creative writing programs, MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, there is a prevailing attitude, common among art-school detractors generally, that talent can’t be taught. In American criticism and culture, broadly speaking, we revere the outsiders, the autodidacts, the eccentrics, and the obsessives who make beautiful termite art burrows. If it can be taught, the logic goes, then it cannot be original. Worse is the view that MFA programs only reproduce their own stylistic tics—Tolstoy called such works “artistic counterfeits”—and the most sycophantic tendencies of their institutional cultures. (Fredric Jameson dissects the anti-intellectualism that underlies the symbiotic relationship between art schools and the academy in “Dirty Little Secret,” his incisive contribution to the MFA vs. NYC collection.)

Peggy Ahwesh She Puppet

Peggy Ahwesh's She Puppet

In experimental film, the suspicion may run deeper. Since the late Sixties and early Seventies, when filmmakers were first hired for university teaching positions, the academy has become crucial to the sustaining of experimental film in the United States. Colleges and universities serve as hubs to which renowned filmmakers and their circles gravitate, and, for most of the country, they’re the only places where avant-garde films can be viewed. With the decline of public funding for the arts, and lacking substantial means of support from the art world or otherwise, the academy provides a structure of employment and production resources that allow many filmmakers to continue making work. The grants, fellowships, and residencies that would otherwise offer an alternative tend to give preference to MFA degree holders. Experimental filmmakers today have grown dependent on the academy, more than the museum, the film festival, or any another institution. Unlike the writers who can turn to the New York publishing establishment in the “MFA vs. NYC” dichotomy, artists who sometimes gain a foothold in the gallery scene, or even filmmakers who make crossover mainstream fare, there are few viable means for experimental film artists to support themselves outside of the academy. The closest model would be that of poets who, unable to finance their careers through book sales alone, have long since moved into the university to sustain their practice.

The negative attitude towards art schools dovetails with the worst stereotypes associated with the experimental film community more generally: the cult of certain styles and personalities can seem to dominate the relatively closed world of the university circuit, where filmmakers and their students seem to speak only to themselves. Adding to this sense of insularity, avant-garde films are often difficult to comprehend, especially for newcomers unaccustomed to non-narrative work, and that barrier has only gotten higher with the increasingly academic language used to discuss it in some quarters. At the same time, and despite the political connotations of the term, some sections of the avant-garde have been resistant to change, stubbornly clinging to celluloid, maintaining a distance from video and digital technologies, and adhering to its traditional preoccupation with formalism and aesthetics. Perhaps most troubling is the persistent fact that experimental film circles tend to be predominantly white, and to a lesser extent, male. The underrepresentation of race, gender, class, and sexual politics, among filmmakers and onscreen, remains a serious issue the community has not yet adequately addressed—a problem that is hardly limited to the avant-garde film world.

Apart from the issue of racial representation, most of these stereotypes don’t hold up to scrutiny. In college towns, there’s often substantial local interest in experimental film, related to but not dependent on the university, such as the monthly screening series UNEXPOSED in Durham; the Milwaukee Underground Film Festival, which is run by students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; the Ann Arbor Film Festival near the University of Michigan; or the Basilica Hudson, a multi-use performance space near Bard.

Meanwhile, the introduction of video and digital technologies has been more compatible with existing analog practices than initially thought. Many filmmakers whose careers were once deeply rooted in the material of celluloid film—Ken Jacobs, Phil Solomon, James Benning, and Ernie Gehr, among many others—have successfully transitioned to digital media. The anxiety underlying these concerns is that experimental film is a world that exists only to perpetuate itself. The root of this is not aesthetic conservatism, as many fear, but economic reality. Experimental film must produce, in tuition dollars and cultural capital, its own rationale. The image of its sustained significance is a matter of survival, as experimental film programs must prove their worth and relevance, often to university administrators. This is not to suggest that good films can’t be made within this system, because they surely can; few, however, can be made outside of it, at least in the United States.

A Spell to Ward off the Darkness

Ben Russell and Ben Rivers's A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness

Alternative models do exist. Filmmakers in Europe, where there is far more funding for the arts, don’t teach nearly as much as their American counterparts. Ben Russell, who collaborated with the British filmmaker Ben Rivers to make A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, left his American teaching position and moved to Europe to “try my hand living and working as an artist full-time.” Since then, and with programmer Aily Nash, he’s begun a multi-year project called the Colony of Light, a communal living and working environment that has had week-long “residencies” at MoMA PS1 and the Basilica Hudson. Russell, who is moving to Los Angeles with plans to create an intentional community of filmmakers and artists, explains: “I’ve become interested in producing other structures or systems outside of any institution.”

Funding filmmaking has become increasingly difficult in the United States. Outside of university support, which is the way most filmmakers in this country survive, there are scarce grants, film sales, or, rarer still, the artist possessed of independent means. Many share the desire for alternative models like the one Russell is exploring. Erin Espelie, a graduate of and current teacher in Duke’s MFA program, says: “Beyond having more federal or larger social support for artists, I would like for the community to find different models for sharing work and to have gatherings and places to see work. I feel conflicted myself about the academy because of all those wonderful things it has to offer, but it’s a shame there isn’t more support for artists to survive outside of it.” Russell offers a more enlarged view of the dependency of all arts on the academy in the U.S.: “The academy is not so much a space in which work is created out of necessity, but the only place that supports culture in the U.S.”

Today, there are more programs that teach experimental film, or some form of moving image art, than ever. The sociologist Gary Alan Fine, who has been studying the culture of art on college campuses, estimates there has been a fourfold increase in the number of visual art MFAs over the past 50 years, with around 300 MFA programs today. For experimental film, which is usually taught adjacent to visual art (as opposed to the more industry-oriented film schools like those of NYU or USC), this has meant more faculty positions for working filmmakers, more students, and ultimately more films being made.

These trends are reflected in the expansion of experimental film festivals like Migrating Forms, the Images Festival, the Ann Arbor Film Festival, and the new Projections at the New York Film Festival, whose programs are largely filled with younger ranks of filmmakers, including those showing work for the first or second time. The change has happened gradually but no less dramatically. In the past 15 years, ’there has been an explosion of talent, including Deborah Stratman, Ben Russell, Kevin Jerome Everson, Michael Robinson, Fern Silva, Jodie Mack, Laida Lertxundi, Lee Anne Schmitt, and Jesse McLean, to name just a few. Though it is possible to identify some stylistic tendencies among their work—observational documentary, landscape study, essay film, hand-processed work, and experimental narrative—it would be impossible to fit any of these filmmakers within a single avant-garde tradition, much less lump them under a single aesthetic or thematic concern or “school.” Many of these younger filmmakers leap over the medium-specific hurdles of their teachers’ generation, switching easily between 16mm and digital video, and traversing both the cinema and the gallery. The field of experimental film hasn’t seemed this vital, diverse, or complex since the flourishing of underground film and its art-world extensions in the Sixties and Seventies. Though the Eighties saw considerable momentum in what Tom Gunning called “minor cinema,” the field was nowhere as large, ambitious, or geographically dispersed as the current crop.

The surfeit of art schools isn’t necessarily a good thing. As with all of higher education, the cost of attending one of these programs has also risen. Art school has always been a risky endeavor, but it is all the more perilous now given the burden of debt that falls on a growing group of jobless graduates. The most common route, and often the only one available to MFAs in experimental film, leads to scarce university teaching positions, for which an MFA (and sometimes a PhD) has also become a requirement. Teaching is hardly the ideal vocation of a filmmaker, of course. As a secondary occupation, it means time and attention away from one’s own films, which must otherwise be squeezed in during school breaks and the infrequent sabbatical. Nor is everyone well-suited to the job. Professors can be as devastating as they are encouraging, sometimes unaware—or all too aware—of the power they yield over their students.  

Lewis Klahr Lethe

Lewis Klahr's Lethe

It is worth examining what is taught, or what actually happens, at experimental film programs. At the most basic level, students learn technique. They take classes on cinematography, lighting, editing, and sound mixing, receiving much of the same training provided by a more traditional film school. These skills translate readily to careers in the film industry. At CalArts, for example, a school founded by Walt Disney and his brother Roy through the merger Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and the Chouinard Art Institute, many students apply what they learn in classes taught by Lewis Klahr or Betzy Bromberg to production jobs in Hollywood. (There is a small contingent of experimental filmmakers who have supported their practice by working in the industry, including Pat O’Neill, Morgan Fisher, and Nathaniel Dorsky.) Students also come to receive instruction in teaching. As Talena Sanders, a member of Duke’s first MFA class, explains: “I’ve always been creating work that isn’t easily sellable, even before I considered myself an experimental filmmaker. So going for an MFA and being qualified to teach has always been a plan for the sustainability of my practice.”

All programs teach digital technologies for reasons having to do with economic practicality (the equipment is cheaper) and commercial viability for students interested in working in the film industry. Yet the schools that are most abundantly represented at experimental film festivals—CalArts, Bard, SAIC, and Mass Art, among a handful of others—are also the only programs that continue to provide 16mm film instruction. Bérénice Reynaud, who has been teaching at CalArts since the early Nineties, gives two reasons for maintaining celluloid as a core part of the CalArts curriculum. The first is aesthetic: digital cinema, in her view, “renders things too clearly” whereas film, its grain fuzzy and sometimes obscure, allows a range of expressivity that includes “shadow and uncertainty.” The second is pedagogical. It’s expensive to buy 16mm film stock, as are laboratory developing fees, and magazine reels limit the length of shots that can be taken. Working in 16mm forces one to be economical; shots need to be storyboarded or otherwise planned in advance. At CalArts, Reynaud explains, film instruction, despite its increased cost and logistical difficulties, is about “taking a stance—not grandstanding—but investment.” Dan Eisenberg, a professor at SAIC, maintains a more practical approach. There, 16mm will continue to be taught so long as there is student interest and community resources to support the processing of film. “It’s not a medium-specific issue,” he says, “as all moving-mage media will eventually map similar trajectories.” Frédéric Moffet, also at SAIC, concurs: although “the technology has changed dramatically, the way of teaching is the same,” rooted in an approach that values “risk and freedom.” At Duke, where 16mm is taught alongside digital technologies, Espelie maintains that “each project should have its own visual signature,” and to accomplish that, students learn multiple forms of image-making.

Working filmmakers do most of the teaching in these programs. Peggy Ahwesh, who came to Bard in 1990, describes the faculty there as distinctly “not teacher-like.” They are, as she says, “approachable, struggling artists similar to them,” making films and exhibiting them on the festival circuit alongside their students. In her classes, Ahwesh shows films with the aim of examining the filmmaker’s choices. “It’s important to see things you could actually make,” she says. Experimental film, moreover, demands a certain resourcefulness. “Students are used to thinking for themselves,” Ahwesh notes. “You have to do it all yourself—shoot, write, edit. This lends itself well to experimental film”,” where students in such programs tend to be engaged. Like the first group of MFAs at Duke, the group of students at CalArts in 1987, when Thom Andersen joined the faculty, were agitating for better and more rigorous classes. He described this group as “quite able politically and capable of self-organization,” and their efforts led to the hiring of James Benning that same year.

David Gatten, who teaches at Duke, emphasizes the values of filmmaking over the technical skills learned in art school. “Making films does not make you a filmmaker,” he says. “Being a filmmaker, you make work, you enter into conversation with other contemporary works, and you advocate for works you believe demonstrate the things that are most important about cinema.” Part of this notion of being a filmmaker means participating in a broader community. In experimental film programs, students often enter into close collaborative relationships with each other and with faculty. Having close relationships with his instructors is what drew Moffet to SAIC, first as an MFA student, and later as an assistant professor. “You have this intimate relationship with your mentor, and conversations about your work with other people,” he says. Unlike his previous program, where the division between students and teachers was especially rigid, “the Art Institute was liberating. People weren’t afraid of risk, failure, things that were different.” Gatten, who studied with Dan Eisenberg and Shellie Fleming at SAIC, notes the influence his teachers had on him, and the legacies they carried from their own teachers. “The family tree is important to me, and I continue to care about those questions of lineage, tradition, and continuities. I have always valued that as much as or more than the radical break idea, that each generation was enacting oedipal revolt.”

Ernie Gehr Surveillance

Ernie Gehr's Surveillance

Art schools also serve as hubs where experimental filmmakers gather, especially when anchored by prominent faculty members. Stan Brakhage’s seclusion in Boulder is indissociable from his tenure at the University of Colorado, just as Ken Jacobs and Ernie Gehr, among many others, molded a generation of filmmakers, programmers, and critics at Binghamton in the Seventies. Eisenberg, a former graduate of Binghamton, remembers his time there as “a powerful moment in the history of film. You’re among the first generation of people to really take media in their own hands, to create a subjective space in media. The trajectory then was about producing a movement.” Scott MacDonald, who is writing a history of the first decade of the Cinema Department at Binghamton, describes the period as one having “no recognized pedagogical rules for the new field.” At Bard, where he taught for 40 years, Adolfas Mekas carved out what Ahwesh describes as an “alternative universe of film” with a club, a signature flag, and a shrine to St. Tula, his patron saint of cinema. Famous graduates, too, contribute to the reputation of a school, and since SAIC graduate Apichatpong Weerasethakul won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, numerous students, many of them international, have come to his alma mater to make experimental narrative films.

Gatten affirms that schools are less about institutional character than the energies of the people who happen to be located in one place. “The hubs change as people come and go. I do think they tend to be less based in institutions than based in the particular enthusiasms, dedications, generosities of particular individuals.” Gatten’s own lectures, meanwhile, have become legendary at Duke. His courses fill with students and community members who frequently drop in, and after class is over, the group migrates to a local bar and keeps talking into the early hours of the morning. “I really loved having this social aspect,” Sanders says of his classes, “this secondary informal thing that you can get together and talk with everyone.”

Though not every program is open to the local community in the same manner as Duke, many extend themselves in other ways. CalArts students have gone on to found alternative screening spaces in Los Angeles, and many pass though the Echo Park Film Center, an independent filmmaking resource and screening space, before entering the school. Bard students cluster at UnionDocs and Light Industry, two microcinemas located in Brooklyn, while SAIC has close collaborations with numerous venues in Chicago, including the Nightingale Cinema, Chicago Filmmakers, and Conversations at the Edge, a series co-sponsored by the Film Center and Video Data Bank. It’s no accident that relationships form between these organizations and the schools from which many of their founders and employees graduated. This isn’t exactly nepotism; in a small and close-knit world such as this, personal connections are often the only mode of operation. These experimental arts organizations, then, become welcoming places for more recent graduates seeking work, and they serve as important outposts of the experimental film world.

Despite the size and intensity of this community, the field of experimental film is as geographically dispersed as it’s ever been. Where once it was possible to identify someone by region—say, a New York structural filmmaker or a San Francisco landscape lyricist—increased mobility (also a result of fewer full-time positions) and ease of online distribution have all but eradicated those distinctions. Schools, as well as festivals, make up the many nodes of an increasingly global network. Though dense clusters still exist in New York and San Francisco, there are now many places to encounter experimental film along the way, from Columbus to Portland, not to mention London, Lisbon, Bangkok, Rotterdam, and Taipei.

The Lost World

Ken Jacobs's The Lost World

It can be difficult, then, to determine the particular imprint of one school, especially when most filmmakers receive training at multiple institutions. Though as McElhatten argues, these programs offer “a hundred things at a vulnerable time,” this is nowhere near the full picture of what makes a complex artist. What is the weight of one two-year program in comparison to the other locales and residencies a filmmaker might pass through, the influence of friends and colleagues, or all the accumulated experiences that indirectly shape one’s practice?

Today, higher education generally is being steered toward professionalization. Studio art programs have turned increasingly vocational, emphasizing the preparation of students for specific careers. Eisenberg notes: “We’re living in a time where everyone wants to instrumentalize education, but when we were students we didn’t feel that way. We wanted to do new things, explore new territories. The enterprise of being a media maker had very few models and now it’s much more defined.” Yet the experimental film programs I’ve been discussing try within these administrative imperatives to remain undefined. In his classes, Eisenberg stresses “comfort with failure, comfort with experimentation. I tell my grad students I’m not interested in what you’re going to do in the next five years. Twenty-five years is more important.” Ahwesh is similarly reluctant to steer her students in any particular direction: “We never talk about making filmmakers.”

Gatten insists that the university allows experimental film to thrive as “a living community.” He continues: “I am quite content for experimental cinema to live as a subculture in the nurturing environment of university systems, in which there is care, conservation, and a way for people to gather around enthusiasms. I am not anti-academia in that way. I think they are the needed shelters in our culture.” That protected state of remaining undefined might be essential to experimental film, which often lacks the clarity and coherence of narrative cinema, and can be difficult to understand. Though “people are hungry for explanation,” as McElhatten puts it, experimental film requires time to “puzzle over—you need to live with things a bit.” Such patience is usually rewarded, but it doesn’t come readily, especially not in the increasingly utilitarian atmosphere of higher education. Fortunately there remain places like Duke, which is responsive to and nurturing of its students, even when they themselves express uncertainty. Sanders recounts her first meeting with Gatten, before she decided to enroll, and well before she’d turned to filmmaking from gallery-based work. “It was supposed to be a 30-minute meeting, and we sat for three hours. He watched everything I’d ever made. During the course of the meeting he said: ‘Well, you don’t know it yet, but you’re a filmmaker.’”