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57th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, May 5-10, 2011 | Beyond Competition: Archive and Discourse, Part II



By Shekhar Deshpande.

This is the second of two parts about the Oberhausen festival. Read Part I here.

The five seminar-workshop sessions organized by the festival this year, in the cozy but somewhat inadequate ‘Festival Space’ across the theater that holds most of the screenings were focused on different aspect of marketing than the usual festival affairs. This wasn’t your ‘find-your-distributor’ workshop or pitch sessions for finding financing.  The ‘Podium’ series provided broad ways to interpret current trends in museums, art institutions, and in the marketplace for short film makers, those who want to deploy creative work to earn a living, as work, as “industry.” Most short film makers are, by definition, newcomers or those who work on the margins of the “mainstream,” wishing to prosper in the whirlwind of changes around them. Challenges for short film makers today are not simply in the area of financing and distribution but also in the realm of new technology, offering new ways for distribution as much as uncontrolled dissemination of their work across the world. These sessions were marked by a broad notion of ‘creative industries’; a sort of blending between creative work and newer models for financial viability in the marketplace. The widely attended event seemed more valuable to a festival that is about short films, which must consider the questions of art, expression and revenue for their survival.

The centrally thematic of these sessions, appropriately entitled, ‘Cheap and Cheerful- Creative Industry or Cultural Exploitation’, was also it’s most energetic and perhaps most polarized. The moderator, Stephen ten Thje insistently tried to keep his focus on how the current changes in museum or drifts in economic structures could not force short film (or video) artists to ‘work-for-free’, in the name of art. He correctly identified this as a risky trend and one many institutions take for granted. The new talk of ‘creative industries’, he implied, may perpetuate that presumption or may block any further freedom from it. Not a new question, of course, but  it had the weight of urgency now that short films and videos could be distributed online without much financial returns to the artists and the programming at museums and other art institutions were not showing any signs of placing such works in their established codes of acceptance.

Tate Modern

Economist Arjo Klamer (Erasmus University, Rotterdam) began forcefully on one side of the divide, articulating ways of conceiving some ideas of creative industry.  He observed that short film makers must recognize the paradigm shift in the economic models of the present. We have moved away from the production (of goods) economy to an economy of imagination, where ideas, narratives about goods, images about goods are produced. That is, “creative” aspect of work has become more vital in relation to a relatively smaller role (though not insignificant) of products. He did not think that the idea of producing short films and videos could be much separated from financing your own efforts, with varieties of ‘crowd-sourcing’ and marketing through the newly shaped networks of social media, either online or  in closer or immediate community networks. This was the clearest expression of the newer concepts brought about by the creative industries, where works of art need not be simply relegated to the realm of art, patronage and archives, but deployed in an expanded circle of connections and marketing pathways that could lead to more revenues, even if in smaller increments at first. Reminiscent of the ‘creative class’ debates in the U. S. and the creative industries trends in the U. K., Australia and elsewhere, Arjo Klamer’s perspective formed one end of the debate while Charles Esche (Van Abbemuseum, Eindoven) and Chris Dercon (Tate Modern, London) formed the other.

Chris Dercon asserted that the artists ought to claim a status of ‘exception’ since Klamer’s schema seems to replicate the current structures of patronage and support from institutions that clearly appear to be “violent” or oppressive to artists. Charles Esche saw the role of ‘imagination’ of an artist is not to work in the economy as currently given but rather by imagining a different world and striving to construct it. for both Dercon and Esche the current creative industries simply re-presents the older structures of power, albeit with a new vocabulary.

Against this perspective that seemed to infuse responsibility and initiative into artist,  Esche and Dercon for the most part explored the alternatives, ones that would hold the entrenched institutions and powers-that-be more responsible.  As the debate continued, their position put them on shifting grounds, from invoking the older debates on solidarity among the artists-film makers to forming resistance against institutional pressures. It wasn’t clear how these strategies alone could work in a world that is increasingly expansive, fluid and challenging. Theirs was a reactive world, while the new economy proposed by Arjo Klamer was rather active and a lot more imaginative. Or, as such debates often require, one needs to be responsive to the terms in which such visions are ensconced; the real life issues of survival for a short film maker are certainly challenging enough in either of these perspectives. Is it just that the ground is shifting under our feet with the newer structures of economy or that these structures have acquired a new language that would require different strategies. The perspectives of creative industry seem attractive and innovative enough to be indulged in and film makers seem to be directly affected by these changes.

Short film straddles the territory in two worlds; an experimental, artistic and innovative range of works and the commercially aimed, narrative or documentary films that aim for broader reach. The distribution systems for both have gone through a major transformation. Experimental, artistic films have sought a place in museums, in exhibition spaces or festivals while the commercially aimed productions have benefited, quite unevenly, from the emerging DVD and other technological formats (including mobile phones, devices, etc.) and services (iTunes, etc.). The panel on ‘The Moving Image and Two Separate Economies’ confronted these practices with representatives from notable institutions contributing their own strategies and experiences. Moderated by Henrietta Huldisch from Hamburger BahnhofMuseum für Gegenwart (Berlin), the panel brought together Rebecca Kleman from Electronic Arts Intermix (New York), Benjamin Cook from LUX (London), Lisa Panting from Hollybush Gardens (London) and Ivo Wessel from Semmler Collection (Berlin). Their mission was to deliberate on two different ways of ‘monetizing’ the works, the artistic and the industrial or commercial. These representatives from art institutions with established reputation brought their own perspectives on how film makers may find anchors in the vastly changing landscape of increasing creativity, technological boom, and varying support from the market and the institutions. The panel proceeded much with much less energy than the one on creative industry, without sharp distinctions in their positions on supporting artists or providing newer avenues for them. Much of the time was taken up by accounts of their respective institutions, important as they were; how each has supported artists throughout their own record. The main purpose of the panel, to show how the moving image may gain from the artistic economy and creative industry remained submerged for the most part.

Ivo Wessel advocated a conceptual and practical expansion of work, first in video format but also opening up to online exhibition and through mobile technologies and devices. This was an instantly different position from the established but valued art institutions that were represented on the panel.  These newer technologies, from the iPhone to installations in various formats, could broaden the exposure the artists receive and also expand the very conception of what has been the traditional notion of artistic work including short film.  That proposition alone could separate museums and art galleries from other venues which are indeed better defined as ‘open and flexible’ spaces. The two separate economies may benefit from simply adopting the principles of flexibility in terms of technology and forms of work. Benjamin Cook took the position that video is theatrical and not reproducible; hence works of art must be show and not simply collected or reproduced.  Institutions like Electronic Arts Intermix and LUX in his view are theatrical (also distributing works) while galleries are ‘primarily’ selling organizations.

There is also an issue of “value” and “scalability” of art, Cook observed. In many ways, the world of distribution and exhibition of short films suffers from a schism of generations, of perspectives and of technologies. While there is a case to be made about showing certain pieces in specific (if controlled) contexts (such as museums, installations), the current changes and imperatives brought about by technologies (represented here forcefully by Wessel), it is hard to maintain these conditions in the age of electronic reproducibility and fluid contexts. Henrietta Huldisch addressed the issue as that of ‘training’ or pedagogy that must include a vigorous discussion of the ‘materiality’ of the object and the contexts. Her charge that cinema studies have neglected these issues was pointed and well-placed (could well be said of short films in general).

View from the Centre Pompidou

The rather obvious gap between these two panels was promptly addressed by a panel on ‘How Alternative are the Alternative Spaces’, which explored modes of exhibition nurtured by institutions that have been at the forefront of presenting avant-garde or experimental work. The insights of Light Industry in New York came from Thomas Beard and Thomas Halter, who also present some work on their own as independent partners. Thomas Peutz from Smart Project Space in Amsterdam brought a wealth of experience in an artistic space that has been at the threshold of presenting new works in Europe and the moderator, Phillipe-Alain Michaud from Centre Pompidou in Paris moderated the discussion with the benefit of being at a major space that values non-mainstream work. The pivotal point in the panel discussion came from the audience member who invoked earlier panel on creative industry to raise the issue of how to pose ‘resistance’ to the established norms so as to make space for newer and bolder works, particularly from short film makers and artists. What spaces like Light Industry achieve is to respond to the trends of the time, make room for artists that are on the cutting edge but often lose that edge once these artists are established. Since New York City has had a tradition of artists who were leaders of the avant-garde video and film movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s, association with these artists gave an identity to the art institutions. These institutions face demands from the current film makers and artists to make these opportunities available, even in the face of competitive and powerful patronage offered by major museums (like the Museum of Modern Art). Thomas Peutz correctly observed at several points that the purpose of such panels ought to be explore how new our thinking and discussions could pushed further than what we know, to see what is possible. In fact, it would be wise to think that the distinctions between the established and avant-garde are historically and contextually specific. The fact that Festival Space at Oberhausen creates this opportunity as a moment of punctuation to deliberate on what is alternative and what isn’t needs to be taken even more seriously; to offer explorations that are outside of the contexts of already successful and visible institutions (such as most included in these panels) and toward more open and fresh ways of creating opportunities for young, upcoming film makers. Valuable as these panel discussions were, they would have served the community of film makers well to have gone onto territories that are more relevant to the present, to the here and now and to the shape of the coming changes.

This year, the festival organizers have made all the panel discussions available online, a step that deserves kudos in consideration of wider audience to extend the important debates that took place here.

Oberhausen packs its intensive programmes in a well defined space of one multiplex in the middle of the town, with no specific attractions (except the Sea Life Center where Paul the Octopus made the town famous as a World Cup Prophet last summer) to compete with. The location and the intensity only add to the central mission of what any festival should be: a treat for the cinephile.  While any individual is always limited in terms of how much his/her existence at a festival could be dispersed across condensed space and time, a take-away from all this was simply that even with its imperfections, Oberhausen Short Film Festival is valuable because it  puts cinema at the center stage.

Shekhar Deshpande is Professor and Chair of the Department of Media and Communication at Arcadia University. His main interests are in world cinema, visual cultures and philosophy of film.

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