09.02.2017 by Kim Knowles

Rotterdam dialogues

I’m always having conversations with artists, curators, distributors and other academics about film in transition, the status of analogue, old and new technologies, film versus digital, ‘photochemical’ versus ‘analogue’, etc. Over the last ten years I’ve been profoundly influenced by discussions with artists such as (off the top of my head and in no particular order!): James Holcombe, Pip Chodorov, Nicolas Rey, Stefano Canapa, Juan David Gonzales Monroy, Daïchi Saïto, Christopher Becks, Peter Miller, Esther Urlus, Mary Stark, Martha Jurksaitis (Cherry Kino), Vicky Smith, Bea Haut, Jenny Baines, Karel Doing, Nicky Hamlyn, Tanya Syed, Alia Syed, Sarah Turner, Sarah Pucill, Sally Golding, Greg Pope, Richard Tuohy, Aurélie Percevault, Luis Macias, Adriana Vila, and so many of the people that attended the truly inspirational ‘Bains Argentiques’ Film Labs meeting in July 2016.

I’ve been moved by their infectious passion and energy to keep their medium alive. I’m deeply grateful to them for teaching me things I didn’t know, for helping me to refine my own position and understand the complex ways of working with film. Without these conversations I would never have been able to write about this area in such depth and with a passion that is also (I hope) infectious and tangible in some way. Although I enjoy the spontaneous and ephemeral nature of these conversations, I often find myself reflecting on what an incredible archive I would have if I’d recorded them all. So with the Rotterdam Film Festival coming up I packed a sound recorder and headed off with the intention of starting this library of dialogues. I underestimated, though, the manic pace of IFFR and the snatched nature of most exchanges there – caught up in the crowd, between screenings, in the rush from one venue to another, over a late-night drink or an early morning coffee with a fuzzy head.


Joshua Gen Solondz, Luna e Santur, 2016


I spent some time with Robert Todd – a Boston-based filmmaker whose beautiful 16mm films I’ve screened consistently at the Edinburgh International Film Festival since I started curating there in 2009. I hadn’t seen him for a while so it was a joy to talk about analogue film aesthetics, Rob’s working practice, and the relationship between the Bolex and the body. But by the time I thought about getting out my recorder he was already on a plane back to the US! At the evening venue WORM I drifted by chance into a wonderful conversation with Nicky Hamlyn, but I was so involved in the discussion that I forgot about the recorder sitting in my bag. I’m just not a great documenter, too prone to going with the flow of spontaneity, too excited by the beautifully random nature of many of my exchanges.

So I purposefully set aside some time with two good friends – Gerald Weber of Sixpack Film in Austria, and Emmanuel Lefrant, filmmaker and Director of Light Cone in Paris. I thought that if I could get the ball rolling with them, I might keep it going. I’ve since set up Skype sessions with other people eager to talk to me, and so this archive might finally get off the ground.


Dialogue with Gerald Weber, 29 January 2017


Well let’s start with the position that I’m coming from – that of my passion for 16mm film. What would be your relationship to it?

GW: I wondered what you thought about the films yesterday [shorts screening ‘Panta Rhei’: https://iffr.com/en/2017/combinedprogrammes/panta-rhei]. Because in the end I though it could be, like, one film. I realized that I could hardly distinguish between the different films. It’s a kind of image-language that is so much dedicated to the material. Not for all of them but for most of them I think. It sometimes even goes towards a kind of fetishism but it’s a unique beauty. There are some films that really make me happy when they’re screened on 16mm and you can hear the projector sometimes in the room.

KK: Some people make the criticism of analogue film or materialist film is that it doesn’t really do anything other than draw attention to the material.

GW: That’s what I was thinking – that it’s a kind of material fetishism in the end. Presenting it as though it doesn’t need more, which I’m not so sure of. I think it does need more.

KK: But there are works that are doing more. I though the film Luna e Santur (Joshua Gen Solondz, 2016) was quite something.

GW: Also The Last Train (Diana Barrie, 2016). It worked with the colours but it had the returning of the sprocket holes. It put me in this mood of like floating away in my mind. You could feel that it’s elaborated in the way it uses layering, but also in terms of the sound.

KK: What’s interesting about that is that it’s about process, various chemical processes that might not be immediately evident in the viewing. Like Esther Urlus’s work – there’s always this intricate research into process that maybe for some people doesn’t come through in the image itself. But it’s not just showing the material. It’s saying what can we do with film that we haven’t done before. Esther was talking in her Q&A [following the screening of Deletion, 2017] yesterday about how we can move forwards with film, not just look back.

What I like about the Sixpack catalogue is that they’re so wildly diverse in terms of the way they’re made.


Dianna Barrie, Last Train, 2016


GW: When we talk about this distribution aspect, what we realize is that it’s more and more the venues and cinemas that can’t screen 16mm. They always immediately ask if they can have a digital copy, which somehow always puts pressure on us, as well as the artist to transfer all the films onto digital.

KK: How do you feel about that?

GW: I think that if it’s more and more available on formats other than 16mm people will shoot less. It’s much more effort to create the infrastructure, the means to project etc.

KK: Is it a kind of laziness?

GW: It is a laziness. But then sometimes you can see an extremely good digital projection of a 16mm film and you think ‘wow, that’s great!’ Siegfried Fruhauf said this of his Exterior Extended (2013), that the sound was much better. Nevertheless he tries to screen the 35mm print as much as possible but he didn’t complain about doing the DCP screenings for that reason.

KK: But he’s also using digital.

GW: Yes, he’s one of those artists who doesn’t have a problem with switching between.

KK: But if people aren’t investing in projecting film what then happens to the production?

GW: That’s the thing. It’s the responsibility of the curators and the venues.

KK: Do you actively encourage it when curators get in touch and ask for a digital copy?

GW: Well we always ask them why don’t they think of taking the original, and the standard answer is always something like ‘yes, well, we thought about that but we just can’t, we don't have the facilities.’ It’s very rare that you convince someone. But it’s interesting that for example sometimes it’s the art spaces renting 16mm. Sometimes they even buy a new print that works as a loop or a film installation. Or sometimes when they have special programmes during the exhibition they build up a small 16mm cinema within the exhibition. I think it somehow goes back to where 16mm came from – the popup cinema situations, where they’d put a 16mm in a club or underground venue. So it was not real cinemas at the time showing 16mm – it was the clubs and coops. This practice of showing film on 16mm in a non-cinema space in the 60s and 70s now ends up being a black box in an art space.

KK: But now completely commodified. I’m always a bit troubled by 16mm in gallery spaces because it feels like the ultimate fetishisation. David Rodowick has spoken [in The Virtual Life of Film] about how film is once again becoming ‘art’ now that it finds itself in galleries and museums. I have an issue with that. You know, I love these expanded film events where you have all the technology on display – it’s one-off, it’s transitory, it’s messy, cumbersome, anarchistic and unruly. You have artists like Greg Pope who physically abuse the material in very physical way. Or Hangjung Lee who performed last night [at WORM], dragging the film out of the door and down the stairs! In gallery spaces we’re often tiptoeing around the projector, which is presented as some precious object. I love the rawness and visceral quality of expanded film.

GW: Well that’s where you really experience it the most, in these live situations. You get the most sensorial understanding of what it is.


Dialogue with Emmanuel Lefrant, 29 January 2017


KK: We’ve had many many conversations about analogue film.

EL: Quite a few, yes!

KK: So we just saw this exhibition: ‘A Cinema of Contraptions’ (De Kunstuitleen, Rotterdam, 26 Jan – 4 Feb 2017). It focuses on ‘old’ technology in new contexts. For me there was some kind of fetishism and I felt uncomfortable about it.

EL: You heard what Joost Rekveld said in the talk the other day? He said he didn’t like this discourse that consists in saying ‘I’m an analogue person, I don’t like digital’.

KK: Yes, he was talking about the binary division between film and digital.

EL: Well I think he was a little bit wrong in that. You know, you have the purists like Nicolas Rey and others. But it’s more about taking the best of everything. You know I’m not against digital. But when I look at a digital image, at least for now I’m still skeptical about what I’m seeing because I need to see some kind of meaning to the thing that I’m watching. And I rarely see that with a digital image. This is why actually a lot of people shoot on 16mm or 35mm and then finish on digital. I still recognize something that I enjoy.

KK: So it’s the form of image-making.

EL: It has to do with texture, and digital hasn’t done better so far.

Emmanuel Lefrant, Parties Visible et Invisible d'Un Ensemble Sous Tension, 2009

KK: But I guess it’s not necessarily about doing better. They are two different kinds of images. I was thinking about someone like Rob Todd – the way he uses the camera and the material is like a way of thinking or being.

EL: Do you mean that he couldn’t make these films on digital?

KK: I don’t know, maybe he could, but there’s something about the textures and the colours.

EL: Because in his practice I don’t really see what kind of difference it would make if he used a digital camera. I mean, the image would be different, of course, but the process isn’t. Pressing a button on a Super 8 or 16mm camera doesn’t make a difference. Coming back to the fetishism thing. You can like/enjoy hearing the sound of the film or enjoy loading the film into the camera. That I understand. Or knowing that you’re recording an image onto something tangible.

Working with analogue film is more about, for me at least, the second step of the process. How you actually process the image, the fact that you can actually interact with the image by touching it, by doing some interventions, by changing something in the process, by adding more layers, physically. So that you have an imprint of what you’re doing. I feel I still have a contact with the material itself whereas with a digital file you can’t see anything, you don’t know where it is. I don’t know, I feel I don’t have any relationship with what I’m doing.

KK: A lot of your work is done on an optical printer so you have more of a relationship with that technology than the camera itself.

EL: Yes. I still shoot on film because of this physicality of the image, the grain, this is what I like and always enjoyed. But if a digital camera came on the market that gave me the same result, I’d totally go for it. For me what counts is the result, what I see on the screen.

KK: So in that sense, the exhibition we just saw probably doesn’t resonate with you because it’s just technology.

EL: Really. I’m not that excited about it. I still enjoy those machines – a technology going for 120 years or so. Nothing lasts that long!

KK: Do you think it’ll last? Do you think there’s a future?

EL: Hard to say. At least in France … You know there’s a chain – the people fabricating the film, then the people processing it, the people building the projectors, then the movie theatre projecting film or not. And you cut one link in the chain you lose the whole thing.  This is what happened in France when the CNC decided to give lots of money to movie theatres so that in one year, two years all the movie theatres in France were equipped a DCP projectors, which takes up a lot of space in the projection booths so they decided to get rid of the 16mm projectors. So within a year all the labs stopped processing 16mm. So I’m not very confident about the future because of that.

KK: But then that leaves a place for a kind of alternative culture, which is what’s happening with the artist-run film labs and the grassroots DIY film community. Doesn’t the breakdown of the industry create a place for these alternative structures?

EL: Yes but if you can’t find any 16mm emulsion what are you going to do? I know people are trying to make their own, but do you really think it’s going to be a possibility for lots of filmmakers? It’s going to be something elitist. Even today. We live in such a small world, we think it’s the same everywhere, but we’re in Rotterdam, we’re in the Western society. Do you think that in Chile or in Thailand it’s possible to see Peter Kubelka’s films on 16mm? They don’t necessarily have access to that. I don’t understand how someone like Kubelka can say ‘my films are on film and that’s it’. That means that many people aren’t allowed to see them.

KK: Well they’re all on YouTube now!

EL: Yes, but he’s totally against that! I think it’s important to consider the medium itself and to respect it. But it’s also important to give access to the work.

KK: This is a different topic, but I was talking to someone who said yesterday that if a film is made on film then it absolutely has to be projected on film.

EL: I disagree because it’s totally apolitical. It doesn’t consider the other. Should we really decide who is and isn’t allowed to see the works.

KK: Because it’s a purist position?

EL: Yes. And this is the reason why I sometimes send my films on digital. To give access to the work.


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