Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video Has its Moment

Ariane Bicho

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.

BAM/PFA Art and Film Notes editors 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 outmore 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.

Exhibition Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-2000 The Timeline on view Through April 3, 2011

Film Series Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area Through March PFA Theater

L@TE: Friday Nights at BAM/PFA

Radical L@TE: Book Launch Friday, October 15, 2010, 7:30 p.m.

In the Museum Store Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-2000, 2010, UC Press and BAM/PFA, 352 pages

This article will also be published in the November/December 2010 issue of Art and Film Notes.