According to Alan Leonard Rees, “‘Expanded cinema’ is an elastic name for many sorts of film and projection event. It is notoriously difficult to pin down or define. At full stretch, it embraces the most contradictory dimensions of film and video art, from the vividly spectacular to the starkly materialist. Stan VanDerBeek’s synthetic multimedia Movie-Drome of the 1960s, for example, is in high contrast to the analytic and primal cinema of 1970s Filmaktion screenings in the UK. Some kinds of expanded cinema widen the field of vision so far that they dissolve cinema itself as a separate entity, merging it into cybernetic space, as envisaged in Gene Youngblood’s seminal book of 1970 or in Carolee Schneemann’s manifesto-like performance scripts of the same era. Other variants seek film’s ontology in the medium’s simplest elements, such as the projector lightbeam or the bare bulb. In ‘paracinema’, the notion of the film medium is itself questioned, and the cinematic is sought outside or beyond the film machine” (Rees, 2011).
“Expanded Cinema”, written by the mentioned media arts theorist Gene Youngblood in 1970, is the first publication that considers video as an art form. In his book, the author used the adjective “expanded”, since he considered the medium in a fresh way, as a form of art necessary to build a new consciousness, involving artists and the audience. Youngblood wrote that 1970s artists found themselves “at the end of the era of cinema as we’ve known it, the beginning of an era of image-exchange between man and man” (Youngblood, 1970) and, due to the constant employment of new technologies and the inclusion of new forms of artistic expression into the public domain, this statement should be considered as still current in the world of Art. His ideas could be linked to what written by Bruno Lessard 38 years later: “the prospect of a ‘future cinema’ opened the door to notions of expanded space and indeterminate forms of spectatorship that dovetailed uneasily with the 1970s theorization of the cinematic apparatus” (Lessard, 2008). Youngblood considered the mass-media entertainment as an entropic system that was not adding new concepts or contents and that, subsequently, forced Cinema in expanding itself to become more complex, to stimulate the audience’s minds. Into the brief Bio introducing the publication, the birth of the author has been defined as becoming “a passenger of Spaceship Earth on May 30, 1942” (Youngblood, 1970). “Spaceship Earth” is a metaphor of the planet as a spaceship, a self-contained apparatus in which all individuals are asked to work together, as a crew, for a greater good. Starting from this first sentence, we must not be surprised if he found necessary to expand the old vision of Cinema to make it evolve in a vehicle that must be used to impart, or “broadcast”, messages and contents that matter.
In his 2003 “Cinema and the Code”, Youngblood further developed the discourse around the achievements of the moving image in the digital era, considering not only the special effects that the new medium started to allow, but also the changes and improvements in its formal possibilities, starting from the cinematic language that, at that stage of its “evolution”, could have been transformed by the medium itself. Discussing with his colleague Woody Vasulka, he arrived at the conclusion that digital images of the moving image, that Vasulka defined as “the performance of the image on the surface of a screen” (Vasulka in Youngblood, 2003), have been prefigured by other forms of visual art. He added that “With the code we can only summarize them, elaborate and unfold them, exercise modalities. Vasulka calls the code a variation machine. There are no new classes of images, there are only new variations and new epistemological and ontological conditions for generating and witnessing those variations” (Youngblood, 2003). The key-idea is that each new medium will embrace, even in the future, the Language of previous media and it will evolve and transform it adding the mentioned new “code” (variations) to their Language in a continuing and improving development.
The first elements of expansion can be found in the Underground Cinema, born as an opposition to the mainstream production and developed as a “place” for artistic research and experimentation. Even if the term is commonly related to independent films, Sheldon Renan, in his 1967 “An Introduction to the American Underground Film”, highlighted its evolution in time starting from Dadaist artworks in 1920s to the origins of Expanded Cinema. Into the chapter “What is the Underground Film?”, the author stated “Definitions are risky, for the underground films is nothing less than an explosion of cinematic styles, forms, and directions. If it can be called a genre, it is a genre that can be defined only by a cataloguing of the individual works assigned to it” (Renan, 1967). What he meant is that each one of the analysed films is a statement of the artist himself and elements like production-costs or artistic trends have nothing to do with their definition, since they can differ from one artwork to another and yet they can all still be included under the umbrella of the Underground. Renan added that out of the qualities related to the film process, like colour, lights or movement, “the film-maker is able to reproduce a reality separate from real life. This new reality may be totally controlled, and it is quite persuasive. It looks real whether it resembles actual reality or not” (Renan, 1967).
Sheldon Renan, An Introduction to the American Underground Film, 1967, Dutton, New York, USA. Snapshots of some images from the book. Slideshow. ©Sheldon Renan, 1967.
This idea can be connected to the concept of “Expanded Cinema” expressed by Youngblood a few years later. Both authors declared the importance of contents over the medium since, to use John G. Handhardt’s words, “The spectator in the movie theatre and the reader of the novel are no longer seen as passive receivers but as, in fact, engaged in the active production of meaning” (Handhardt, 1985). As a matter of fact, Renan also remembers us that undergrounds film-makers often use “the actual”, their own lives, as subject matter, but transforming it with manipulative experiments during the filming and editing phases, in a transformative form of their personal perspective and unique vision: this might be the reason why, as Jackie Hatfield also highlighted, often the subject is central to the screen, intervening with the apparatus at the same level of the artist and the audience. To define what is a film, Renan also mentioned the work done by Andy Warhol who, in his 1964 16mm-film “Kiss” created an example of Cinema with no movements or sound, or Breer’s artistic practice who, according to my research, explored a form of Cinema with no continuity, thanks to frame-cutting technique, and who started working on abstract experimental films while creating kinetic sculptures during the 1950s in France.
Andy Warhol, Kiss, 1964, 16mm, black and white, silent film, USA. Image from the movie. Original film elements preserved by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA. ©Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2018.
These examples, I think, provide a clear sense of the level of experimentation employed and we should not be surprised by the fact that these experiment took us to the cinematic expansion that started during the late 1960s; as a matter of fact, Renan himself defined the Expanded Cinema not as a particular style, but as “a name of a spirit of enquiry that is leading in different directions” (Renan, 1967) that pushed artists to work in mixed media (or inter-media) and also involving other forms of art, like Performance or performing arts.
This relation with Performance Art has also been analysed by Felicity Sparrow, who wrote “The artist-led, film co-op movement of the 1960s grew up in tandem with that decade’s artists’ “happenings” and multi-media performances in galleries, theatres and outdoor spaces, and the Fluxus interventions which embraced all art forms and were staged in lofts and public places. Simultaneously many artists and art students were abandoning painting and sculpture in favour of film (and later video), performance art and what became known as Expanded Cinema” (Sparrow. 2001). Before these movements, even the most experimental films were “experienced” in cinemas and theatres providing a sort of bi-dimensional and non-participatory experience. Cinema-related performances and installations deeper involved the audience, transforming screenings into proper events. Nevertheless, Duncan White has been the theorist who perfectly described the new role of the audience by comparing narrative Cinema, that wanted to deny the “ontological presence of the audience” (White, 2010) to the cinematic immediacy of “a form of filmmaking that prioritizes the projection event” (White, 2010). Not only, as Kotz reminded us, all production methods have been completely rethought, but also the reproduction-process had to be completely reconsidered, including the materials used. The medium has been re-explored as a visual system and this system started to include the audience. To expand the Cinema is to expand the eye: to quote Jonas Mekas, this can be done in many ways, starting from “removing various psychological blocks” (Mekas, 1972) or those inhibitions generated by what he called our “practical culture”. I believe that this means that if the audience is integral part of this new Cinema-apparatus, the apparatus cannot be expanded if viewers’ eyes are not wide open.
The Austrian artist Valie Export made a step forward during a lecture delivered at “The Essential Frame: Austrian Independent Film 1955-2003” in London, by declaring “I have found a way to continue expanded cinema in my physical performances in which I, as the centre-point for the performance, position the human body as a sign, as a code for social and artistic expression” (Export, 2003): so we see that the relationship between the two art-forms is mutual. Another example of its reciprocal relationship with other forms of art is the one with music. How Paul Hegarty highlighted in his “Rumour and Radiation”, video emerged from avant-garde use of sound and there are “multiple connections between experimental music and music in experimental art contexts both working as seeding ground for video” (Hegarty, 2014): Cinema expanded in other media and languages, connecting visual phenomena and forms of art while creating his own dimension. Some other artists, then, started to explore also the possibilities provided by new technologies, like in the case of multiple screen experiments mentioned by Weibel in his “Expanded Cinema, Video and Virtual Environments”: this to liberate their artistic expression from the conventions that still wanted it related to still image in general and painting, more specifically. Bellour, in his “Saving the Image: Art after Film” presented another example of these possibilities by discussing Bill Viola’s “Buried Secrets” in which, during the 46th Venice Biennale, the artist used time as the perfect intermediary between the two forms of visual art, remaking a painting thanks to a projection that transformed the Gallery space into a film theatre.
Traces of the theorised strong connections between Expanded Cinema and new technologies can be found since VanDerBeek’s 1966 Manifesto, in which points three and four are focused on the research and exploration of all existing audio-visual devices, while point five highlighted the urge to create new devices as a way to find the best combination possible to subsequently share ideas with other artists. I think that now that more than forty years have passed, it would be interesting to reconsider these points and to understand how current technologies would (or will) evolve this multi-media Cinema in continuing expansion.
Bellour Raymond, Saving the image, in Saving the Image: Art After Film, 2003, edited by. Pavel Büchler and Tanya Leighton, Glasgow: Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA), and Manchester: Manchester Metropolitan University, UK. Pp. 52-77.
Comenas Gary, Jonas Mekas and the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque, 2014, on WarholStars.org http://www.warholstars.org/filmmakers-cinematheque-1-1961-62.html
Export Valie, Expanded Cinema as Expanded Reality, in Senses of Cinema, issue 28, October 2003 http://sensesofcinema.com/2003/peter-tscherkassky-the-austrian-avant-garde/expanded_cinema/
Hanhardt John G., The Passion for Perceiving: Expanded Forms of Film and Video Art, Art Journal 45(3): Video: The Reflexive Medium, Autumn 1985 issue. Pp 213.
Hatfield Jackie, Expanded Cinema and Narrative: Some Reasons for a Review of the Avant-Garde Debates Around Narrativity, in Millennium Film Journal, No. 39-40, Hidden Currents, New York, USA, Winter 2003 issue.
Hatfield Jackie, The Subject in Expanded Cinema, in Art in-sight, 2004, No. 11, Filmwaves, issue 24, Pp 14-18.
Hegarty Paul, Expanding Cinema, chapter 1 in Hegarty, Rumour and Radiation: Sound in Video Art, 2014, Bloomsbury Academic. Pp 2; 19-31.
Kotz Liz, X-Screen: Film Installations and Actions in the 1960s and 1970s, essay, 2004, edited by Matthias Michalka, Walther König, Cologne, Germany. Pp. 44-57.
Youngblood Gene, Cinema and the Code, 2003, essay, Communication Arts Dept., The College of Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA. PDF, Pp. 1-17. http://www.vasulka.org/archive/Artists9/Youngblood,Gene/CinemaCode.pdf
Youngblood Gene, Cinema and the Code, 2003, in Future Cinema: The Cinematic Imaginary after Film, edited by Jeffrey Shaw and Peter Weibel, Cambridge, Massachussetts/The MIT Press, USA. Pp. 156-161.
Youngblood Gene, Expanded Cinema, 1970, Dutton, New York, USA. Pp. 3; 49; 59-69.
Lessard Bruno, Missed Encounters: Film Theory and Expanded Cinema, in Refractory blog, 26 Dec 2008 issue http://refractory.unimelb.edu.au/2008/12/26/missed-encounters-film-theory-and-expanded-cinema-%E2%80%93-bruno-lessard/
Marchessault Janine and Lord Susan, Fluid Screens, Expanded Cinema, 208 in Moving Image. Documents of Contemporary Art, 2015, Edited by Omar Kholeif, published by Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press, London, UK. Pp. 56-57; 368.
Meigh-Andrews Chris, Expanded Cinema, chapter 4 in A History of Video Art, 2014, 2nd Edition, Bloomsbury Academic, London/New York.
Mekas Jonas, On the Expanding Eye, Village Voice, 6 Feb 1964, in Movie Journal: The Rise of the New American Cinema, 1959-71, 1972, Collier, New York, USA. Pp 118-120.
Renan Sheldon, An Introduction to the American Underground Film, 1967, Dutton, New York, USA. Pp 17-53; 227-257.
Rees Alan Leonard, Expanded Cinema: Art, Performance and Film, edited by A.L. Rees, David Curtis, Duncan White, and Stephen Ball, 2011, Tate Publishing, London, UK. 304 pp. Reviews: Utterson (Screen), MacDonald (MIRAJ).
Scheugl Hans, Expanded Cinemas Exploding, in Film Unframed: A History of Austrian Avant-Garde Cinema, 2012, Ed. Peter Tscherkassky, Vienna.
Sparrow Felicity, Light Illusions Artists and Cinema; Filmmakers and Galleries, in Vertigo Magazine, Spring 2001 issue http://www.closeupfilmcentre.com/vertigo_magazine/volume-2-issue-1-spring-2001/light-illusions-artists-and-cinema-filmmakers-and-galleries/
VanDerBeek Stan, ‘Culture: Intercom’ and Expanded Cinema: A Proposal and Manifesto, in Film Culture No. 40, Spring 1966 issue, pp 15-18; repr. in Motive, Nov 1966 issue, pp 13-23; repr. in The Tulane Drama Review, No. 11, Autumn 1966 issue, pp 38-48.
Warhol Andy, Kiss, 1964, 16mm, black and white, silent film. USA. Original film elements preserved by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA.
Weibel Peter, Expanded Cinema, Video and Virtual Environments, in Future Cinema: The Cinematic Imaginary after Film, 2003, edited by Jeffrey Shaw and Peter Weibel, MIT Press. Pp 110-124.
White Duncan, British Expanded Cinema and the ‘Live Culture’ 1969–79, Visual Culture in Britain, Volume 11, February 2010 issue. Pp 93-108.