On REEL NEW YORK
By Kathy High
Independent Series Curator
Page 1 of 4
Cycles. Things seem to happen in cycles... the present and the past
engaging with each other in a perpetual game of tag. To understand one is
to know the other.
As we present the second annual REEL NEW YORK film/video festival on Thirteen/WNET, the cycles of independent film/video, and Thirteen's role in these cycles, are worth considering.
Twenty-five years ago, a seminal program called the Television Laboratory (TV Lab) was sponsored by Thirteen/WNET (co-sponsored by KQED in San Francisco and WGBH in Boston, and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, NYSCA and the NEA). Under the directorship of David Loxton (and later under the co-directorship of Carol Brandenberg), TV Lab functioned as a workshop. Thirteen opened up its broadcast studio facilities to video artists, who could experiment with their equipment throughout the year. Works produced at the TV Lab were used either purely for research or for broadcast.
Out of TV Lab came productions that were radically off-center from other television programming, and that today are landmarks in the history of independent video and the medium of television. As noted in one history of art and television:
"THE LORD OF THE UNIVERSE, for example, a documentation of Guru Maharaj Ji's Millennium '73 revival meeting at the Houston Astrodome by Michael Shamberg's TVTV [Top Value Television] group, was edited at the TV Lab. This was the first program originally made on 1/2-inch video tape to be broadcast nationally. Another tape made at the Lab, Ed Emshwiller's SCAPEMATES, in which live dancers perform in and are themselves metamorphosed by an environment generated by computer graphics and video special effects, won an Emmy award in 1972."
Other projects to emerge from the TV Lab included GLOBAL GROVE by Nam June Paik, with samplings of interviews, special effects dance pieces and Japanese broadcast television commercials. Bob and Ray created a work in 1972 that required viewing on two different stations simultaneously, channel 5 and channel 13. Artists from various disciplines were invited to produce at TV Lab, trying their hand at video for the first time, such as Twyla Thwarp. Other artists who worked at TV Lab included Skip Blumberg, Skip Sweeney, Joan Jonas, Ron Hays, Lillian Schwartz, Woody and Steina Vasulka, Peter Campus, Hermine Freed, Jon Alpert and Keiko Tsuno, Kit Fitzgerald and John Sanborn, to name a few. Because of the availability of then-new technology, such as portable video equipment, a documentary department developed at TV Lab alongside the arts. The Independent Documentary Fund was initiated there, with such notables as Ken Burns getting his start.
Viewing audiences must have been amazed with these "processed" images of abstract moving art on their television sets, and home-movie-like documentation of events usually not reported upon.
TV Lab (1972-1984) existed during a time of heightened support for the arts in our culture. But the aspirations of public television have at times been held in check by economics, politics and the shifting priorities of the public.
In such cycles of cultural history, Thirteen has gone through periods when the screening of radical and experimental works, such as those produced in TV Lab, seemed less of a priority. For example, the station cancelled Independent Focus four years ago, a 13-week series of independent film/video art works selected from national submissions which had been on the air since 1977.
"Thirteen boldly began this new series, called REEL NEW YORK, which has aired works produced by local makers from the New York area."
In 1996, Thirteen rekindled its commitment to support local independent film and video, and decided to re-establish a showcase to screen works that reflect new models of filmmaking. Perhaps influenced by the plethora of cable TV stations airing more independent film, such as Bravo, The Independent Channel and HBO, and perhaps also influenced by the persistent requests from the NYC media arts community to create another series profiling independent film, Thirteen boldly began this new series, called REEL NEW YORK, which has aired works produced by local makers from the New York area.
And while the cycles of our local public television station in New York have ebbed and flowed, so have the fortunes of independent film- and video- making elsewhere in our culture.
In the days of TV Lab, independent film and video could readily be defined by what it was not: commercial, Hollywood, mainstream. But the cycles of history have led to developments today markedly different from those ideals and conditions that created TV Lab. Most of the films nominated for Best Picture in the most recent Academy Awards were called "independent;" Sundance has built its reputation as the hottest film festival in the country on its extensive "discovery" of independent productions; Web sites are now potential sites for marketing independent films; 75 cable channels are available to many U.S. households, including two specializing in "independents." In this environment, so radically different from the early days of non-mainstream work, what does it mean to be an "independent film or video maker"?
The best definition is that the film/video maker is an artist, working autonomously, unconstrained, free, often out of his/her own pocket (though less often than previously), focusing on subjects of his/her personal choosing.
"This year's selections for REEL NEW YORK may be looked at as a smorgasbord of types of works. . ."
But I think there needs to be a distinction made between commercial "independent film" and, if you will, noncommercial independent film/video, which tends to be more avant garde or experimental. To be "independent" in the commercial film world means to enter the mainstream market place. Independent, commercially successful feature films by artists like Spike Lee, John Sayles, Todd Haynes, Jane Campion, Mira Nair and Sally Potter present alternative stories, as we tire of the shoot-'em-up pastiches that continually remake each other. Although these filmmakers work outside the Hollywood studio system, they still have access to large budgets and immense staff with which to create their works.
Many such "independent" filmmakers make choices which allow their work to be screened as broadly as possible. Their subject matter may be considered "risky" or outside the mainstream and they may be creating new strategies for approaching production and distribution, but their focus and choice of format (such as linear narratives) still keeps their work exhibited widely.
This year's selections for REEL NEW YORK may be looked at as a smorgasbord of types of works that represent the wide variation of today's "independent film." Included are works that reflect both the conventional and the non-conventional ways of working with film and video.
NEXT: MODELS OF FINANCING AND PRODUCTION OF INDEPENDENT FILMS.
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