Joel Stern, co-founder of Brisbane-based arts collective OtherFilm, talks to BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM about bringing the avant-garde collection Isolationist Eye Openers: Historic Australian Film Art 1962-1998 to the Film Archive in Wellington.

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BETWEEN June 11-13, the Film Archive is showing a collection of Australian avant-garde and experimental cinema, from the classic to the contemporary. Featuring some of the films which gave Australian directors appreciative (if still underrated) praise from around the world, the programme is a must for those who are interested in new approaches to art. The historical films are being brought over by OtherFilm, founded by Sally Golding and Joel Stern, along with the scholar and writer Danni Zuvela, a Brisbane based arts collective, and makes up the programme on the first day. Also featured is Dirk de Bruyn, a veteran and influential filmmaker, whose performance art is taking place on the 12th. The final day features an ‘expanded cinema’ piece by Abject Leader, a mix of film and music by Golding and Stern.

Stern is a independent curator, musician, researcher on art, academic and a key driver of the project. Stern admits to being an “obsessive listener and watcher of films even as a child, and grew up in an environment where there was a lot of film and music around a lot of the time, my parents having parties and having people over to watch films – interesting stuff like my Dad showing Wim Wenders films.” Stern initially made a name for himself in underground circles for his music. “I was involved in the underground community radio station in Melbourne called Triple R and got involved first of all in playing records and then started bringing in weird sounds that I’d recorded in my house or in the street and mixed those with music that I liked.” He progressed to constructing his own compositions out of the sounds. The vibrant film scene in Melbourne contributed to his love of film, and film lecturer Adrian Danks (the founder of Senses of Cinema) introduced him to films by the likes of Michael Snow, Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, and Aussie filmmakers, Arthur and Corinne Cantrill.

Stern and Golding have worked together for many years, and Golding had “made short films which were extremely beautiful in this dark, gothic, stop-frame animation way.” Stern provided the score and sound design for the films. However “in about 2003, I had a gig in Brisbane with some Japanese artists and it was supposed to be a solo show. I thought ‘I don’t really want people looking at me when I’m playing, I’d like them to have another space forming in their minds and the music to act as a trigger for making that other space’. I asked Sally to do some projections and really avoid becoming a spectacle myself. She bought along a couple of 16mm projectors and showed some of the films that she’d made, but she cut them up and re-mixed them and spliced outtakes from them and created this projected environment that made my stuff so much better.” Stern and Golding have collaborated to create this multi-dimensional expanded cinema since. Stern says “I think expanded cinema as a form is a kind of unique intermediary form of art, performances, projections of light, experimentation of sound. It’s tactile, and material, and it has a unique form of beauty.”

Avant-garde cinema has connotations of elitism and exclusivity, probably due to the fact that cinema is seen as one of the more populist art-forms. Stern says “I think that’s a problem for a lot of artists working in the avant-garde and working in an experimental way. I don’t think it’s a good idea to think about accessibility too much. I think you are doing something that has an intensity or an aesthetic value that is unusual and you’re working in a form that is unusual that people are drawn to.” Exploring the manipulation of something that people forget is a manipulated medium is often a key driving force of avant-garde, and Stern and Golding’s work uses things like light manipulation, and a playful mixing of images and sound.

Stern suggests that audience might approach work labelled as avant-garde or experimental with some trepidation. “We’re prone to [using] ‘experimental’ or ‘exploratory’ or ‘expanded’ and put that before cinema or connect that to sound. In the end if someone is just reading a list of those terms and not going deeper and actually looking at the work or looking at who the artists are, the terms on their own are not going to have a lot of meaning. Obviously there are a lot of people out there who’ll hear ‘avant-garde’ and ‘experimental’ and have a negative reaction from experiences in the past. They might have seen something that might have rubbed them the wrong way and described in that way. People should know that work which is described as avant-garde and experimental, there’s a huge amount of diversity, from unbelievably entertaining and funny and humorous through to very dry and challenging and difficult. There’s still something for everyone even within this umbrella term.” He adds that “most people who come to our shows get what we’re doing quite intuitively, because it’s quite clear.”

Stern prefers to use 16mm film, as opposed to moving to digital which many experimental artists have been doing (that said, the artists use both film and video). Stern says “so many of the artists that we’ve been influenced by and whose work we love work with that medium.” There are also medium specific qualities which drive the use of film, such as lenses, photochemical manipulation, light-sculpting, physical loops, hand-working and scratching the film. The physicality of the medium also plays a role in the way it’s used. He says “I think for artists like Sally and Bruce McClure, if they didn’t work with film, they would probably be in sculpture or some other form of visual art.” In terms of whether video offers the same physical possibility as film does, Stern says “I don’t think video will get a kind of materiality which is similar to film, but it clearly has its own materiality as well. A lot of artists working in video are exploring that. There are a lot of people working in video because it’s the easiest way to draw attention to an image. We’re not drawing attention to an image, we’re tracing, we’re dealing with the projection of light in a space, and the whole process of projection is part of that performance.”

Film is a remarkably flexible medium, and throughout its history has converged a lot of different artforms. Stern says “when it’s thrown in an intermediary situation in which there’s sound and movement and a live audience, and intervention through space, when film is taken outside of the black box of the cinema and put into other kinds of spaces, like a gallery, or a warehouse or a basement, or wherever, it can have an energising effect on other mediums. It’s sort of like when someone walks into a party and immediately this party has this added dimension of life. I feel like film is a medium which walks into a party and enlivens the whole situation.” It’s also not surprising that Stern says “I know Sally feels this way. I know when she has a party, there’ll be a bunch of film projectors showing stuff. They’ll become a form of wallpaper for all of the guests.”

Stern is also a prolific musician, and confesses he approaches his music with a filmic point of view. “I think so. It must be because I’ve thought about film so much and thought about music so much, and it’s a very blurred distinction for me. I want some of the same things out of music that I want from film. I don’t have a discrete or distinct expectation from each medium.” His music has been compared to the likes of Jodorowsky and Fellini and Stern says “obviously people do get the kind of cinematic qualities of it without really needing to be prompted.”

His music utilises a lot of found sound, and sound which is recorded in a variety of locations from inside of beehives, to his house. Stern says “I’ve been collecting sound effect records and I’ve got really interested in this whole period in the 1950s and 1960s when the BBC and labels like Folkways were collecting and archiving sound in an anthropological way and releasing sound effects for use for home movies and foleys for their own projects. I like the futuristic vision embedded in these artefacts from the 50s. In a way, my whole approach to sound, and part of the reason why it’s cinematic, is that I take sound that I’ve recorded myself and sounds that were connected from another generation and instruments that were recorded in a studio, and I try to bring them together that creates a world with different dimension to it. It feels old and it feels current, and it’s also from another place. It’s a quality that reminds people of cinema.” Stern’s construction of music also touches on damaged or easily ignored items. “A lot of things that are perfectly formed are often not made by hand or made by artisans, but by machines. To achieve that perfect form, it’s a very industrial nonhuman process. I kind of like the human-ness of things that are decayed and frayed and aged. I like the texture of old film and old sounds.”

Part of the project’s aim is to raise awareness of Australia’s avant-garde tradition. “The whole event over three days is going to be really diverse and interesting.” He says Dirk de Bruyn “has been making films since the mid-70s, and recently he’s got into performing, and he’s just like something out of this weird punk theatre of cruelty, circus sideshow. He dances around and screams and shouts and intervenes in front of his projections.” Stern says Abject Leader has “developed to the point we have these four or five discrete pieces that we do, with a break between each one.” The films involve among other things investigations into colour, collages of 20s and 30s archival footage, and films projected onto bodies. The historical avant-garde collection involves filmmakers who “were in dialogue with the international avant-garde film movement. They were looking at the films of Brakhage, and the European counterparts, and the works are informed by those. There are specifically Australian qualities to do with the landscape and also the quality of light.” Stern says the use of things such as long durations, multiple exposures, experiments with optical printing and contact printing, and handmade process “is really sophisticated at a really high level. I think this programme can be showed anywhere in the world – like the Museum of Modern Art in New York – and audiences would find them really fascinating and not some kind of second rate version.” Stern says “even in Australia, in films schools you can learn about Brakhage and Deren, and not even be told an Australian tradition exists. One of the key agendas that we have is to illuminate this tradition especially for younger artists and visual artists working in different mediums, to at least understand the contribution that Australian filmmakers have had on our agenda. I suppose it was to make a connection between contemporary artists and these artists from the 60s and 70s so we can see a thread moving between the work. I’m so pleased it’s Dirk de Bruyn and me and Sally touring, it’s generations of artists making a strong argument for the continuity of that tradition.”