Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000
October 6, 2010 - April 3, 2011
Book Launch: October 15, 2010
BAM/PFA Film and Video Series: September 2010 through March 2011, co-sponsored by San Francisco Cinematheque
BAM/PFA Gallery Exhibition: October 6, 2010 through April 3, 2011
Film Series and Book Tour: January 2011 through December 2012
The San Francisco Bay Area has been home to a thriving and prominent film and videomaking community since at least the 1940s. Of this larger community, a substantial subset of artists, innovators, and experimentalists has pursued alternative forms of visual expression that have influenced other artists far beyond our foggy enclave. The rich history of this alternative practice is explored in the new book Radical Light, published jointly by UC Press and the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Through our research efforts to synthesize the artistic output of this diverse group of film and video artists, BAM/PFA has amassed a collection of rare “ephemeral” materials that often represent the remaining traces of what were vital manifestations of the Bay Area media community, its artists, as well as its pedagogical institutions and exhibition venues. These overlooked, often visually striking, archival materials come in the form of posters for bygone cinema screenings, newsletters from extant and now-defunct media organizations, production stills from seminal films that capture the time of their making, historical correspondence by renowned artists, and many other artifacts that encapsulate a half-century’s media culture. Of additional interest, nearly a dozen artist-made collages and drawings commissioned for Radical Light will be displayed in their original form. A special sidebar focuses on the microcinema movement that emerged full-force in the early 1990s and which is attributed to the prophetic inspiration of several Bay Area curators who showed films in intimate settings beginning in the late 1970s. Organized as a loose timeline along the walls of the Theater Gallery, hundreds of discrete paper relics evoke the graphical playfulness and diverse means that sustained a still-flourishing community of alternative media artists.
Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-2000
Through April 3, 2011
Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video Has its Moment
Called “a long overdue reappraisal” by Artforum’s David James, Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-2000 makes the case for the Bay Area as an important epicenter of avant-garde film and video in the second half of the twentieth century. The 352-page book, copublished by BAM/PFA and UC Press, presents the first large-scale survey of alternative media in the Bay Area and offers diverse entry points into this rich history. This season at BAM/PFA, Radical Light is not only a book, but also a film and video series <>>, a gallery exhibition, and a series of Radical L@TE Friday night events <>>.
Art and Film Notes caught up with the Radical Light editors and curators, BAM/PFA Film Curator Kathy Geritz, BAM/PFA Video Curator Steve Seid, and Dean of the School of Film/Video at CalArts Steve Anker (formerly director of San Francisco Cinematheque), to find out more about this expansive, multifaceted project. What follows is an edited interview with Anker, Geritz, and Seid.
Q. What is it about the San Francisco Bay Area that made it a fertile laboratory for experimental film and video and such an appealing home for artists exploring this medium?
Geritz: Culturally, it is significant that, beginning in the mid-1940s, the Art in Cinema series at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now SFMOMA) was founded. This series was committed to showing experimental films. It led to the San Francisco Art Institute (then California School of the Arts) initiating a radical film program in which students made collaborative films under the guidance of Sidney Peterson. Soon the Art in Cinema screenings were including films by local artists who had been inspired to make films as a result of seeing films in these programs.
Within a few years, film distribution was added to this fertile mix. For the next fifty years, there were a multitude of adventurous screenings series, college-level production programs, and film and video distribution, as well as centers that provided resources for production.
Q. You mention SFAI and SFMOMA—what were some of the other critical institutions that helped to give these films an audience?
Anker: In addition to those two, I’d add Art Movies at San Francisco State University, Canyon Cinema, Pacific Film Archive, San Francisco Cinematheque, Video Free America, Other Cinema, No Nothing Cinema, and the Exploratorium.
Q. During the course of putting together the book, did you notice or learn of any movements or themes that weren’t originally apparent to you?
Geritz: The 1950s was largely a blank for us. We learned of several film exhibition series that were active during that time: Kinesis, a Berkeley-based film society; Camera Obscura Film Society in San Francisco, which was started by Bruce Conner and Lawrence Jordan; and Art Movies which was curated by photographer John Gutmann at San Francisco State. We also unearthed a few copies of early Canyon Cinema schedules that revealed that early screenings were an astonishing mix of narrative features, early serials, animation, and experimental film. We had assumed that the programs had only included avant-garde work. This led us to look more closely at the role that artists had in setting up film and video screenings and founding venues and institutions.
Seid: We also discovered—again and again—the way in which alternative film and video practice responded to contemporary concerns. For instance, throughout the latter part of the sixties, while the great social experiment of sexual liberation was advancing in the Bay Area, film artists took up the body as an object of contemplation. Scott Bartlett, Constance Beeson, James Broughton, Anne Severson, and others created works that tested taboos and
tried to normalize the erotic. A few years later, Bay Area conceptualists engaged the body as an artistic gesture, injecting the artist into the aesthetic process but now as the medium
itself. Video artists like Terry Fox, Howard Fried, Linda Montano, and Paul Kos were using the body to liberate art from the clutches of Modernist practice. In this way, art practice was responding to contemporary culture, but also helping to shape it. This interplay between pressing cultural discourse and alternative media runs throughout Radical Light.
Q. It seems like a lot of poets, particularly around midcentury, gravitated to avant-garde film and video. What was it that compelled them to jump into this form of visual art?
Anker: Many poets tried their hands briefly at filmmaking but few sustained an interest in film that equaled their poetry, if that had been their first love. James Broughton is an exception, and Christopher Maclaine only made a few films (even though they are great) in comparison with his ongoing efforts in poetry. Others came from painting, such as Jordan Belson and Robert and Gunvor Nelson. At midcentury there was more crossover between mediums and only a handful considered themselves primarily to be filmmakers.
Seid: I also wouldn’t limit this to poets, though many of the early experimental filmmakers had a literary bent. I think what was so compelling and seductive about film was not only its ability to sculpt light, but its popularity as a mass medium. Artists could talk through this common conveyance.
Q. At what point did you conceive of developing an exhibition to coincide with the book and film series, and how did you decide what to include in the show?
Geritz: We always envisioned that there would be a book and film series, but it wasn’t until we were going through the PFA and Cinematheque libraries that we realized what a wealth of materials had been preserved. We also visited other institutions—libraries
at San Francisco State and the Art Institute, what was at the time the iota Center in Los Angeles, and Anthology Film Archives in New York—as well as artists such as Bruce Baillie, and uncovered even more materials. It was exciting to peruse these flyers, program handouts, and other ephemera and begin to weave a chronology of which artists were living in the Bay Area when, and who was setting up film and video programs at which institutions. We wanted other people to see these artifacts, some of which are visually striking, and to experience that same pleasure of discovery.
Q. How is the local alternative film and video scene today?
Anker: It’s still very vibrant, though much of the activity has become more marginalized. Since public and private funding has largely dried up and institutions have become more
limited, if not conservative, in their agendas, it is more difficult to encounter important work of the past and for younger artists to gain an awareness of their work. The exception
to this is the explosion of videowork being shown in galleries and museums, much of which is by a recent generation of artists.
Q. Radical Light—what exactly does that title imply?
Seid: Though the title Radical Light implies a use of moving image media that breaks with convention, the use of the word “radical” has another meaning for us: the individual writings in our book are like radicals, essential particles, that bond together to create an extreme reaction.
Steve Seid and Kathy Geritz
Film and Video Curators
Radical Light is curated by Kathy Geritz, Steve Seid, and Steve Anker, Dean of the School of Film/Video at CalArts; the microcinema sidebar is curated by Steve Polta, Artistic Director, San Francisco Cinematheque.
The curators wish to thank the following individuals and institutions: Stephanie Boris, Stephanie Cannizzo, and Garbiñe Ortega; exhibition materials are from the PFA Library, BAM/PFA art collection, and are on loan from Fara Akrami; Artists’ Television Access; Craig Baldwin; Jacques Boyreau; Karl Cohen; Janis Crystal Lipzin; New Nothing Cinema; Other Cinema; San Francisco Art Institute Archives; San Francisco Cinematheque; Scott F. Moffett; Special Collections/Archive, J. Paul Leonard Library, San Francisco State University; Total Mobile Home; and individual artists.
Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000 is made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the William H. Donner Foundation, The San Francisco Foundation, Owsley Brown III, and the continued support of the BAM/PFA Trustees.
Visit the Project News Center for more information about the Radical Light book, film and video series, gallery exhibition, and tour.