Do we overlook what’s in front of us because there’s a hole in the centre?
A.A. Phillips’ seminal essay on the cultural cringe first appeared in Meanjin in 1950, describing an internalised inferiority complex … The cringe’s historical origins lie in the material reality of colonialism … Colonists denied and evicted the cultures of this continent’s custodians and supplanted it with their own. That process cemented a displacement of culture at Australia’s heart … When we talk about the cultural cringe, we’re really talking about the colonial cringe … Lauren Carroll Harris (2020)
Expanded cinema is a little-known practice that arose in the late 1960s. It has a limited but devoted international audience but is barely known in Australia. In a year-long dialogue with Melbourne scholar and artist Dirk de Bruyn (see note 1) about local practice, I learnt of his emphatic agreement with the legacy of displacement Lauren Carroll Harris points out. Expanded cinema has been and continues to be a vibrant component of Australian creative practice, taking place right under our noses, yet those of us in the business of cultural circulation have chosen to persistently overlook it. Understanding why was the motivation for Dirk, myself and some colleagues[i] to meet regularly last year.
I must start by explaining expanded cinema. It combined movie technology with live events, literally expanding cinema beyond immersive stories on a single big screen. In Annabel Nicolson’s Reel Time (1973), the film literally wound its way through the room while it was punctured by Nicolson’s sewing machine, then projected, while another artist read aloud from the machine manual. In Malcolm Le Grice’s Castle 1 (1966), the image of re-edited newsreel footage was intermittently obliterated by flashes from a large light bulb hung adjacent to the screen. In Anthony McCall’s Line Describing a Cone (1973), smoke in the room made a 3D cone from the projected film image of a line making a circle, the audience moving around inside the cone and its smoke.
These examples come from British artists. In the UK, effort to remember this work by curators, scholars and institutions has been underway for some time, a similar situation across other parts of Europe and the US.
What about in Australia? I can expand my definition using local works citing 2007 research from artist and scholar Danni Zuvela, evidence there has been some research into the situation here. Zuvela’s definition includes Poem 25 (David Perry and Albie Thoms, 1965) in which a performer faces the projector bulb, caught in the cone of the projection, reading (or shouting, Zuvela 2007, 9) out numbers as they appear as white words on the black 16mm film: ‘two, twenty, four’. Also part of her definition is Boiling Electric Jug Film (Arthur and Corinne Cantrill, 1970) in which an electric kettle sat on stage coming to the boil with a film of the same image (Zuvela 2007, 9). To round out Zuvela’s picture, I add Jeffrey Shaw’s Corpocinema (1967) involving an inflatable dome for projection (Duguet, Klotz & Weibel 1997, 11); and Hugh McSpedden’s light shows shown on Melbourne beaches during hot nights in which he took his set of Hokushin 16mm projectors in his modified van and projected dots and colours over night time beach goers.
Our 2021 expanded cinema dialogues resolved that Australian audiences should know about this stuff. Back in 2007, Zuvela was motivated by a flurry of international programming of both contemporary and historical expanded cinema to wonder, as we did, what about Australia? (Zuvela 2007, 14). Our group spoke about evident continuities between historic Australian practice and contemporary exhibitions like Sally Golding’s at Metro Arts in 2020.
What follows are three angles we explored in our dialogue about why attention has been so limited in Australia.
Is Australian expanded cinema not known because the works are not collected nor preserved and the records are poor? Our dialogues identified archiving as a problem. These works were and are made as part of raucous events or ‘nights’. Hived off in the archives as items to preserve, as some of them have been in programs like those at the Tate Tanks (Gronlund 2009), are they stranded from that contact with the program and communities that produced them?
Is Australian expanded cinema work known but ignored due to its limited aesthetic power? Disheartenment is a factor here. Dirk shared his experience in a recent project to digitise uncollected Melbourne experimental films (not the same as expanded cinema, but many makers made both). He noticed the makers were suspicious and incredulous there could now be an audience for work they literally garaged a long time ago. Thus they were reluctant to actually hand over their films.
Or is Australian expanded cinema vaguely known but not talked about, slightly embarrassing, a local version of better stuff that happened in Europe and America? Zuvela noted that in Australia it is saddled with ‘psychedelic connotations’ that make it ‘critically unattractive’ to scholars of Australian film (2007, 13-14).
But in conversation with Dirk, we also identified evidence of the cringe Lauren Carroll Harris writes about. Several times over Dirk and I dwelled on the reality that expanded cinema happens/happened here. Could the denial about it be a pertinent example of this deeper denial? Over to Dirk to get into some productive discomfort to tease this out.
A Circular Path
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time passing.
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time ago. Pete Seeger (1958)
I sit in front of a blank page and I try to invoke the erased, denied and ignored memories of my own practice and community which straddles both performance and cinema experimentation. These traces are cradled in the volunteer developmental, curatorial and infrastructure projects undertaken from the 70s on till now, not my more recent academic work. There has been no interest emerging from there and that is one of the roadblocks. Until now, Louise?
Melbourne events, particularly, have fallen through the gaps. Further, as Jonathan Walley intimated on the AAANZ panel, it is in the elusive performative register where the expanded cinema sits that effuses the most precarious invisibilities. Yet this situation also produces a fertile site ready for re-colonisation and re-classification by a forward-looking next generation.
The precarity of Australian Expanded Cinema is doubled up by the marginal position of the Australian Experimentation generally (or whatever it is elusively named- Personal Cinema, Artist Film, Avant Garde, non-narrative etc), which I mark as outside the outside or at the margins of the margin. Such double negatives express a particularly Australian traumatic colonial legacy: ‘we of the never never’, ‘never say never’ or ‘Australia is not a bad place to be’. This way of thinking relates to Judith Herman’s view of trauma: ‘The dialectic of trauma gives rise to complicated, sometimes uncanny alterations of consciousness, which George Orwell, one of the committed truth-tellers of our century, called “doublethink”, and which mental health professionals, searching for calm, precise language, call “dissociation.”’ (Herman, 1992 p.1)
The history of Expanded Cinema in Australia is a traumatic contested space, that requires a re-narrativization. Zuvela’s welcome work barely scratches the surface. It does not challenge what has fallen from the record, especially in Melbourne. For example: What about James Clayden, Chris Knowles’ musical performances, Lynsey Martin’s High School slide projections. Jo Hampton, David Cox, and Chris Mann’s performances. Chris and David both ‘escaped’ to America. There is also Peter Tammer’s 20 minute (1983-5) Triptych of My Belle, Hey Marcel…, Queen of the Night. I have written elsewhere that Cantrills Filmnotes has historically and visibly marked the practice of its publishers, while those often documented in its pages remain invisible. (de Bruyn, 2014)
Hugh McSpedden’s beach projections are also the tip of an Iceberg. He is recognised as “god-father” for Gertrude St Projection Festival. As Edison Light Company from (1968-80) he, with Michael Lee as assistant, provided projections at the legendary TF Much Ballroom gigs at Central Hall, Fitzroy for bands such as Daddy Cool, Tully, Spectrum, Lipp and the Double Decker Brothers, Tamad Shud. Is this the hippiedom that Zuvela identifies as critically un-attractive to scholars?
After creative presentations in Belgrade, Zagreb, Karlsruhe, Jena, The Hague, Lisbon and Vienna I no longer situate Australian Expanded Cinema practice in a derivative echo of a British or American avant-garde Canon that processes Australian presence as marginal, second-hand, derivative or lagging. Internationally, the story is more ambiguous and infected with ‘double-speak”. Mihovil Pansini, one of the founders of the Festival of Experimental Film (GEFF 1963 -1970) in Zagreb, his formalist washed-out K3 (cloudless sky) (1963) makes Peter Gidal’s later Clouds (1969) seem illusionist and derivative in comparison.
And finally, is it more productive to identify with those forces that have shaped indigenous culture and critically interrogate the impact of the settler’s colonial eye? When I read Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, he finds evidential traces of a denied sophistication and depth of indigenous culture, registered in the diaries of the first settlers and explorers like Mitchell and Sturt. In the next step of their own settlement and loyalty to Empire this settler class buried and ignored this knowledge of village life, extended housing and land management that had evolved over thousands of years. Why do we keep doing that to ourselves?
What, however, might a contemporary Australian practice be that visits the avant-garde of the ‘old country’ head on, not temporally, as mimetic descendent, but spatially as coevally related? This would primarily be a spatial practice, its consciousness of its own relationship to an earlier avant-garde an explicit and integral contingent component of the work. Perhaps something like the performance practice of Louise Curham and Lucas Ihlein’s Teaching and Learning Cinema (TLC) project (Ball 2016).
Steven Ball is writing about Australian artists bringing their wares to London. This is all about me in so far as I am one half of TLC with my colleague artist and scholar Lucas Ihlein. But this also not about me at all, it’s about ways to tell the story of expanded cinema in our region.
What’s caught Ball’s attention is that TLC and the other two artists he writes about in this article, Sally Golding and Sue K, have up-ended a long standing cultural model in which there is a well worn path taking Australian art to northern hemisphere cities, perceived as centres. Recognition there means acceptance as good art back in Australia. Ball quotes Terry Smith (1974) on New York as the centre of the art world. Ball is saying that TLC, Golding and Sue K up-end that: rather than a model where London is the centre and Australia is the periphery, less good because it’s far away, instead distance is a useful condition that enables different and productive relationships.
Dirk has called for a new narrative that allows Australian expanded cinema to circulate. The spatial approach Ball uses might be part of the solution.
Ball writes about relationships that are ‘coevally related’, finding coevalness in writing by cultural geographer Doreen Massey (Massey finds it in the writing of anthropologist Johannes Fabian (1983)). The colonial story of progress (the story of modernity as Massey puts it) involves a normative path where some societies (the colonisers) are ahead on the path and others are behind (the colonised). Instead, if they are coeval, they face each other with space as the key dynamic rather than a narrative of progress, establishing and maintaining it as a norm. A spatial model undercuts judgement against a norm. In facing each other in a coeval relationship, ‘“ a stance of recognition and respect in situations of mutual implication … an imaginative space of engagement” ‘ can be adopted, Massey quoted in Ball, 2016. Massey calls it an attitude.
Coevalness has merit to overcome the denial Dirk graphically explained. Going a bit further than Ball, TLC is instructive as an example of how coevalness might work for telling expanded cinema history in our region.
Ball writes about TLC’s work re-enacting British cinema. Why did two Australians put some growth rings around some British history rather than re-telling, and therefore strengthening, Australian work? Ball reports Lucas on this point: why should TLC have to carry the can for Australian culture? I’d add that TLC’s decisions were driven by aesthetics and curiosity, we were both intrigued by work that arose from the London Film Makers’ Co-op. We were also aware that to make sense of these works, experience of them was required, not documentation.
However, part of the reason we could focus outside Australia was that we spent time learning about some Australian work and others were bringing it to local audiences.
OtherFilm brought re-enactments and performances such as Poem 25, Cantrills expanded cinema, film performance by Australian artists such as Dirk.
Our explorations into Australian work included sitting down with Jeffrey Shaw, David Perry and the Cantrills to explore an exhibition of British and Australian expanded cinema. We concluded an institution needed to do it, our effort was better spent generating experiences for our community. TLC screenings included artists’ film as well as expanded works eg Joan Grounds came along when we showed her collaboration ‘We should call it a living room …’ (1975); we organised an evening with Mike Leggett showing his Image Con Text work (1978-2005) and some of his very early work with Ian Breakwell.
From this TLC experience, some qualities of coevalness are detectable:
space of engagement: we actually did this work and brought it before audiences
an attitude of recognition: we had a hunch it was important
and some glimpses of mutual implication: we knew/know it’s part of a bigger story.
So where does that leave us? Coevalness offers a spatial way to think about relationships and therefore history. Ball used it effectively in his article and it has potential for history telling in our region. In our 2021 expanded cinema dialogues Dirk and I were part of that I referred to in my first post, we talked methods to tell the history. Cathy Fowler, in dialogue with Sally Golding, identified ethnographic methods as relevant, bringing more than one account, avoiding establishing a canon (and therefore a norm).
Part of the answer to overcoming denial and oversight is quite practical: tell these stories non-hierarchically, with more than one voice as Cathy and Sally identified. Draw on coevalness via Ball via Massey (via Fabian 1983), so they are in relation to each other and work in other parts of the world (mutually implicated, in a space of engagement) but without judgement against a norm.
This process of overcoming denial will feel forced and strange initially. Be motivated by the 20 year olds of the future who need to stumble across this work and be inspired by it in their own way and in their own time.
From Colonial to Coeval Vistas
Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that Canada as a whole is a victim, or an ‘oppressed minority’ or ‘exploited’. Let us suppose in short that Canada is a colony”. (Atwood, 1972)
The idea of Massey’s coeval that Louise introduces is a productive one that extends the detailed expression of Louise’s long running and durational TLC project with Lucas Ilhein. Her outline situates the Man with Mirror project as the tip of a Janus-faced iceberg. Where TLC’s (Wo)Man with Mirror faces and engages with an Expanded Cinema canonical work from the “old country”, as Ball calls his English home (As an Australian I nominate our indigenous past as the real “old country”), their community focus revives an array of precarious local work only remembered by a few. Unfortunately the centralised funding structures, funding Australian Art Practice impacted TLC’s ability to manage this important cultural work. Curham’s current interest in Australian Expanded cinema extends and vitalizes this thread. TLC’s engaged history places Curham at a turning point for the re-narrativization of this contested space.
The precarity of Australian Expanded Cinema history is uncannily reflected in Steven Ball’s incisive cultural work both in Australia and England. His work on innovative film in Australia which included co-ordination of the Melbourne Super 8 Group, the performance of Un-Australian with Nicole Skeltys and myself and other performances and screenings at Café Bohemio (all important experiences that expanded my own creative practice). Ball’s management and cultural developmental skills were never institutionally rewarded in Australia with long-term employment, whereas on his return to London his commitment was quickly identified at St. Martin’s Artist Film and Video Archive by David Curtis. It is also worth mentioning Mike Leggett’s migration to Australia in 1988 with his partner Deborah Ely. Knowledge of Mike as a seminal figure with his conceptual experimental works at the London Film-maker’s Co-op, recognised by TLC, is not generally known in Australia, whilst his knowledgeable ground-breaking work with New and Interactive Media in Australia makes the case for a historical connection between both old and new media practices that Malcolm Le Grice stressed in Experimental Film in the Digital Age (2001)
The responses to colony by Canadians, writer Atwood and theorist Harold Innis, provide a useful parallax to examine Australia’s marginal cultural position. In Survival Atwood names four victim positions for individuals and national groups. These partly echo Franz Fanon’s three stages in the development of Third World colonial art. This moves from the native intellectual adopting the coloniser’s culture, through the past being romanticized but one’s fate remaining inevitable, to where you identify your victim position but refuse its cage. For Atwood these are: denial of victimization, general victimization and righteous anger. Atwood adds a fourth empowering position to Fanon’s trinity, that of the creative non-victim, one also taken up by Feminist Cinema in the 1970s. Victor/victim games are obsolete. Otherwise, as my friend Tony Beilby texted me “…one becomes one’s abuse…”. This is the view that Pascoe moves into (as do filmmakers Ana Vaz and Cauleen Smith) and that a revitalized history of Australian Expanded Cinema needs to develop. Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines also connects indigenous memory paths to Ley Lines and nomadic Arabic knowledge systems.
Harold Innis, Canadian communications theorist (the Bias of Communication (1951)) and mentor to Marshall McLuhan’s media thinking argued that Canada, to evolve culturally, needed to accentuate technologies of time (e.g Song, Film, performance) to counter the bias of technologies of space (e.g. Telegraph, Television, Internet) that the United States used to dominate Canadian culture. This is an argument for de-centralization and an embrace of the local.
I understand this as the point that Ilhein and Curham make with their (Wo)Man with Mirror. Their framing delivers the work’s visceral impact through a well ordered DIY script. There are examples of Man with Mirror performances documented online on YouTube (Space Biased) but when you hear everyone in the audience react simultaneously, you do not feel or understand why. When you are physically present, the impact of Sherwin’s performance (Time Biased) viscerally reaches your body-centred perceptual apparatus at the same time as every other audience member. Does this view run counter to Massey’s stressing of the importance of space in enabling a coeval approach? A coeval approach disintegrates space. I suggest that a dialogic approach through its gaps produces a de-centralised space, is critical to both Innis and Massey and was one of the outcome insights of AAANZ panel discussions for me and present in Curham’s design for the panel dialogue. Canadian film-maker Mike Hoolboom’s multi-voiced book on the history of Toronto’s Funnel “Underground: The untold story of the Funnel Film Collective” similarly points a way forward. Australian Expanded Cinema needs such considered multi-voiced TLC.
Atwood, Margaret, 1972 Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, Toronto: House of Asansi Press.
Ball, Steven. 2016. ‘Beyond the Cringe: Australia, Britain, and the Post-Colonial Film Avant-Garde’. Sense of Cinema, no. 78 (March). http://sensesofcinema.com/2016/british-experimental/post-colonial-film-avant-garde/.
Carroll Harris, Lauren. 2020. ‘The Arts Crisis and the Colonial Cringe’. Kill Your Darlings, 15 October 2020. https://www.killyourdarlings.com.au/article/the-arts-crisis-and-the-colonial-cringe/.
Duguet, Anne-Marie, Heinrich Klotz, and Peter Weibel, eds. 1997. Jeffrey Shaw: A User’s Manual, from Expanded Cinema to Virtual Reality = Jeffrey Shaw: Eine Gebrauchsanweisung, Vom Expanded Cinema Zur Virtuellen Realität. Ostfildern: Cantz.
Fabian, J. (1983) Time and the Other: how anthropology makes its object. New York: Columbia University Press.
Golding, Sally. 2020. Assembly Now. Metro Arts, Brisbane, exhibition 30 Sep to 14 Oct 2020. https://metroarts.com.au/assembly-now-online/
Gronlund, Melissa. 2009. ‘Define Intervention – Melissa Gronlund at a Tate Modern Conference on Expanded Cinema’. Artforum International, 6 May 2009. https://www.artforum.com/film/melissa-gronlund-at-a-tate-modern-conference-on-expanded-cinema-22777.
Harris, Lauren Carroll (2020) ‘The Arts Crisis and the Colonial Cringe’, 15 Oct 2020, Kill Your Darlings https://www.killyourdarlings.com.au/article/the-arts-crisis-and-the-colonial-cringe/
Herman, Judith. Trauma and Recovery. New York. Basic Books. 1992
Massey, Doreen. 2005. For Space, London: Sage Publications, 66-70.
Zuvela, Danni. 2007. ‘“Yes, but How Do We Place You?” Expanded Cinema in Australia’. Brisbane: Griffith University.
(Note 1) These meetings were preparation for the Art Association of Australia and NZ 2021 conference panel, Let’s talk about expanded cinema. Meeting participants included Dirk De Bruyn, Louise Curham, Cathy Fowler, Sally Golding, Jonathan Walley and Mark Williams.
Louise Curham (1,3)
Dirk de Bruyn (2,4)
Louise Curham is an archivist, media artist and researcher lecturing in the School of Information and Communication Studies at Charles Sturt University,