When There's Motion, but No Pictures
Guest Artistic Director Ed Halter adjusts Cinematexas' experimental aim
For more than a decade, Ed Halter has been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of alternative and experimental film in America. Perhaps most famous as a contributor of film and cultural criticism to The Village Voice, Halter is also an exhibit and festival curator who has worked with such noted venues as the Museum of Modern Art, Eyebeam, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. From 1995 to 2005, he was the programmer for the New York Underground Film Festival, one of the most renowned experimental movie series in the world.
A longtime fan of Cinematexas who has written about Austin's hometown festival for the Voice and other publications, Halter was a logical choice to be the series' first-ever guest artistic director. His program, Live Material, will focus on the performative elements of modern filmmaking, from the audio-visual manipulations of Bruce McClure to the "musical" found footage of Luther Price. One doesn't usually think of film as performative (that's why they call it "film," right?), but, according to Halter, this new approach is part of the experimental cinema world's response to the proliferation of video, which has inspired many alternative filmmakers to look differently at that old horse film and come to see it not as a quaint, archaic broadcasting tool but as a viable means of cross-medium artistic exploration: projection as performance, medium as message.
The Chronicle recently spoke with Halter over the phone at his home in lower Manhattan, where he was packing his bags for a two-week trip to the not-yet-but-soon-to-be-dubbed Experimental Film Capital of Central Texas.
Austin Chronicle: After working with the New York Underground Film Festival for 10 years, why did you want to be a part of Cinematexas?
Ed Halter: Austin's obviously unique in that it has a really rich film culture. For a city its size to have so many great filmmakers to come out of it and to have so many great exhibition opportunities, it's amazing. But what's interesting is that for experimental cinema and the much more avant-garde elements of cinema, Cinematexas is the place; there's not a lot of competition. In New York, when you're programming, so many places show this stuff the major museums and various festivals and so forth that you don't always have your pick of what you want. As soon as Cinematexas asked me to do this, I knew some of the people I wanted to bring down, people who are known within the community and do amazing work and have been in shows like the Whitney Biennial, but have never been to Austin.
AC: Who are some of the people you wanted to bring down?
EH: Immediately I wanted to bring down Bruce McClure, who works in Brooklyn and is a filmmaker he's actually trained as an architect who does performances using 16mm projection equipment. He doesn't make films so much as he takes the elements of a projector like the sound that comes out of the projector, the raw light that comes out of the projector without even focusing it and he hooks this up to things like guitar pedals and sound mixers, and he basically does a musical, audio-visual concert with it.
Another person I wanted to bring down was Luther Price. And he's a kind of legendary character within the experimental scene. He's been working since the late Eighties, early Nineties. He's laid low for the past few years and then suddenly re-emerged with all this new work that's all made of found footage, stuff made out of old medical films and strange educational films. It's hard to explain, but the work is very dark and emotional. He makes it talk, so to speak. And he also has this musical quality to what he does. He uses a lot of very raw sounds, a lot of the machine sounds from the projector, the raw sound of 16mm sprocket holes going through the optical sound reader. So, there's some of his work that overlaps with noise music.
And then I'm also bringing down people who are doing more video and media installations, like Eddo Stern. He is an Israeli game designer and artist, and what he does is game modification and video games as art installations. He's bringing down a brand-new game that he's calling Darkgame (Prototype), and it is a sensory-deprivation game. You play it by putting this device on your head, and there's no visual interface; you have to find your way around this space using audio and sensory clues. He's trying to explore whether a video game can exist without a visual interface.
That's actually world premiering at Cinematexas. He's just putting the final touches on it now.
AC: With a lot of the works you're bringing in, it sounds like there's no visual element at all. Can this really be called "film"?
EH: In the last few years, experimental film has really blown wide open. We've noticed this at New York Underground as well: All the rules are gone. A lot of the festivals are becoming more like performance events. For example, in the competition screenings at Cinematexas this year and this is similar to a lot of the experimentally minded festivals there's very little film showing. People aren't making films as much; everything's on video. So you're calling it a film festival but it's really becoming a video festival. So I decided to counter that by, on one hand, bringing in a lot of hardcore artists who are still using 16mm, because 16mm is not dead yet; there are still new things that no one's ever thought of before that can still be done and done in a fresh way. And, on the other hand, to show how far out this medium can go and how far it can be stretched and expanded because that's really the point of a lot of this kind of work. It's really to explore how far we can stretch the medium of cinema until it really starts bleeding into things like art, music, and performance: things we don't think of being the movies.