An Interview with Steve Anker by Jennifer Breckner

Posted by | Jessica Bardsley | Posted on | April 9, 2012

February 17, 2012

Jennifer Breckner in conversation with Steve Anker on the occasion of the screening “Radical Light,” a program of works that grows out of a decade-long research project into the history of experimental film and video in the Bay Area helmed by curators at the Pacific Film Archive and CalArts.

Jennifer Breckner: On the Radical Light website an interview with all three curators mentions that the exhibition came about after you realized how much material was stored in various archives. What are your thoughts on the foresight people had about collecting and archiving this ephemeral material early on? Did they understand at the time that they were creating history?

Steve Anker: Pacific Film Archive is a film and paper archive that came into existence in the early nineteen-seventies. Archiving has always been at the heart of what they do. In terms of the world of experimental film my sense is that while they have always had a broad commitment to archiving, there was less of a primary objective to build a significant archive devoted to the avant-garde in the early years. The Art in Cinema paper collection, discovered just before it was on the verge of being thrown out, was salvaged by the former PFA director Edith Kramer.

By the late nineteen-nineties, Kathy Geritz, Steve Seid, and I realized that many elder states people who had been significant players in the Bay Area were getting old and frail, and some had already passed away. The three of us felt that if we were going to preserve this tradition we must turn a significant amount of our attention to it. We became more and more aware that there was a remarkable tradition of experimental film and video in the Bay Area that included many genres, yet much of it was in a precarious condition. There was something about the Bay Area that made it a magnet, an attractive destination point, in many cases for people visiting from other places who then stayed, as well as people native to the area, all of who made significant contributions starting in the mid nineteenth-century and continuing to the present. We felt that we could really make a contribution with this project.

In talking with people and beginning to ferret out newspapers and documents collected from many decades, we realized how unbelievably active it had been starting in the mid-nineteen-forties. A central concept of the book is that the Bay Area has supported an ecosystem of alternative cinematic activity. Schools have been a key supporter and nurturer of talent, as well as screening and distibution institutions of all kinds and sizes. The three of us realized that we wanted to start archiving as much of this material as we could get our hands on for the PFA’s archives. Then, PFA started a more developed plan to expand its film holdings to include a large Bay Area experimental film collection. It also started a preservation project in which important Bay Area films could be saved from extinction, such as Robert Nelson’s The Great Blondino. There were challenges in doing this, especially with handmade personal filmmaking, as many films were made using crude, homegrown techniques. PFA  realized that this represented a major tradition worth saving, not only for the sake of the Bay Area, but for American culture and the world of cinema.

Jennifer Breckner: How did you come about the decision to include so many writers, film, and video makers in this project?

Steve Anker: The idea of the book developed gradually and organically. At first the three of us talked about authoring it completely ourselves. However, there are so many people who represent different aspects of the experimental tradition, that we decided, why not call on them to share their passion and experience? Then in the early 2000s we started inviting experts to write on topics that they were close to, such as Craig Baldwin, who wrote about found footage, and Michael Wallin, one of the earliest openly gay Bay Area filmmakers, who wrote about early queer cinema. The content of what we were dealing with was so rich and complex in its multiplicity that we thought we could best embody that by asking a wide variety of artists, critics and scholars to speak to particular works or interests. For example, we asked critic J. Hoberman, to write on The End and The Great Blondino, and scholar Scott MacDonald, to write on Art in Cinema.

It was very important for video to be as equally represented as film, since video art appeared early in its history through collectives such as Ant Farm and television programs such as those that aired on KQED, the local PBS station. We wanted to represent the whole world of alternative cinematic media as it was practiced by artists, written about, studied and curated. It became important for us to look back at the precedents that occurred in experimental media, such as Filo Farnsworth’s first transmission of a television signal in downtown San Francisco in 1927, as well as the even earlier nineteenth-century experiments of Eadweard Muybridge in which he made the first projections of motion pictures.

Jennifer Breckner: Prior to this project, how did the Bay Area’s film and video scene figure into histories of these media? How does the Bay Area compare or contrast to a city like New York or Chicago in terms that historiography?

Steve Anker: I think it’s a matter of dispersion. New York has the richest tradition in respect to the varieties and quantities of important alternative media art that has been created. Chicago has always had a strong tradition in experimental film dating back at least to the nineteen-sixties. In these large metropolitan areas the worlds of experimental film and video have been historically absorbed into or submerged within the larger art culture. However, because of its rebellious, iconoclastic, and often anarchistic character, experimental media has always stood out in the relatively small Bay Area. There’s something about the region that provokes a spirit of rebellion and defiance that stands out amidst the general culture.

The Bay Area has attracted people who have made work over the much of or most of their lifetime—Bruce Conner, James Broughton, George Kuchar, Gunvor Nelson, and Larry Jordan, for example. It is a place where a radical art practice stands out and can’t be ignored by larger institutions. There are an astonishing number of film festivals that have been virtually forced to acknowledge experimental forms of media for many decades. Why? Because it is such an undeniably strong and consistently cross-generational culture.

Jennifer Breckner: The catalog mentions often that the Bay Area was a fruitful place where artists working with experimental cinema were incredibly open to a diversity of approaches including nontraditional ones. Could you expand on the relationship between geography and this willingness to try any approach in terms of film and video making?

Steve Anker: San Francisco and the Bay Area have supported radical lifestyles and artistic experimentation beginning in the mid-nineteenth-century and continuing at least until the ‘nineteen-nineties dot-com era. It’s had a long tradition of attracting people with a deep hunger to find iconoclastic ways of expressing themselves. I still have students in Los Angeles, which itself is a hotbed of radical thought and freedom of expression, who want to visit San Francisco because they feel that that’s where real experimental filmmaking is most active. As far back as the early nineteen-fifties, Stan Brackhage was drawn San Francisco because of Sidney Peterson’s groundbreaking filmmaking workshops. He returned to the area a number of times in part because he found the Bay Area an exciting home for experimentation in cinema and poetry. Young people are drawn to the area’s experimental reputation; its sense of vitality is still intoxicating.

Jennifer Breckner: Expanding upon this idea of the Bay Area fostering a community where artists took great risks with media, I’m wondering if the inclination to be open to new approaches comes less from geographical location and more from the fact that film, and particularly video, did not have a long-standing history so the parameters of how to deal with it as an art form were not set in stone? I am thinking here about your discussion of Workshop 20, a filmmaking class for painters, or the many comments geared towards film and video’s amateur associations (home video, for example) or in Kathy Geritz’s interviews with artists about small-gauge film.

Steve Anker: I think that what you suggest is true of both film and later video; it was the relative newness of each combined with the freedom of the locale that led to so much experimentation in each, though the many great writers who emerged certainly were aware of the great traditions in poetry and prose. In my essay on Bay Area schools I mention Tony Labat, who talks about what it was like to be a video artist in the mid-nineteen-seventies, how exciting and liberating it was for him at that time since there was no ‘artistic baggage’ and how he felt as though he was in virgin territory. But it’s also true that in the Bay Area you felt you were in a secret hideaway where no one was looking over your shoulder. One was far away from the New York and European establishments and even Sothern California. The Bay Area is a unique physical and psychological environment where one can go to get away. Sidney Peterson, who was a wonderful writer, talks about this in terms of dealing with a place where visual and psychological perspectives are always changing. The Bay Area had one of the country’s earliest international populations, especially for a small region, which has contributed to an overall diversity of thought.

Jennifer Breckner: Lawrence Rinder, BAM/PFA director mentions on the website that this is a “landmark” and “ground-breaking exhibition” and the “first large-scale historical survey” of Bay Area avant-garde cinema. Indeed, it is a monumental undertaking. Why have their been no attempts prior to this to encapsulate the Bay Area’s contributions? Did you ever feel as if this project was too overwhelming? How does one begin to tackle a project of this size and scope?

Steve Anker: Although PFA and Cinematheque would frequently pay homage to different Bay Area eras and key artists, we never attempted a historical overview of this magnitude. One of the great things about Radical Light was that the more research we did the more expansive it became; the more we researched, the more we discovered interesting personalities or works that we hadn’t heard about before. We did really well in continuing to investigate the far reaches of this world and covering major players—writers, curators, teachers, and makers—and the depth and range of the project became more and more expansive. We also came to realize that no single project, even of this scale, could really be exhaustive since there will always likely be more to uncover, and many of the major artists and areas of activity could only be touched upon.

We often felt overwhelmed. That’s one reason that why it took ten years to complete. People began saying that the book would never be finished because it was too big but we believed it was always going to happen, in part because of the support of Mary C. Frances, Humanities Publisher + Music and Cinema Studies Editor of the University of California press. She has published a number of books on experimental film and supported the book very early on, stayed committed, and encouraged us to take as long as we needed to see it properly through.

Jennifer Breckner: It seems that the expansive range of Radical Light fits in with other types of exhibitions that you curated in the past, which are large in scale and all encompassing in nature. For example you curated Big As Life: An American History of 8mm Films, an exhibition for the Museum of Modern Art, which featured **seventy-six programs** as well as Austrian Avant-Garde Cinema: 1955-1993, which traveled to ten cities throughout the U.S. What attracts you to these large-scale endeavors? What is your curatorial approach to something so vast?

Steve Anker: My personality tends towards the expansive. I don’t focus narrowly but burrow and tend to be excited by the unraveling of new possibilities that are revealed within artistic movements and communities. I gravitate towards the incredible range of people, voices and perspectives that form communities of artists. The way that I helped run S.F. Cinematheque, and prior to that in my programming in Boston during the late 1970’s, was to be as embracing and supportive as possible in terms of the breadth of accomplishment within experimental media. It’s about social networking not in contemporary but in more historical terms such as the ways that people interact with each when physically sharing music, dance, theater, and cinema. Cinema, including its most current electronic uses, is the newest of the arts and is still radical when compared with the more traditional ones. And, I am most interested in finding the outer margins of cinematic expression. This is what has always been exciting to me, beginning with my education at Binghamton University with Ken Jacobs, Larry Gottheim and other great teachers, and this has kept me inspired over the years.

Jennifer Breckner: In terms of the screening for SAIC, how did you choose the lineup of films? How did the program differ for the other two Chicago venues?

Steve Anker: The Radical Light series in the Bay Area included about thirty programs of many different types of themes. The program at Gene Siskel Film Center was designed to showcase 16mm and 35mm films that have been preserved and in some cases significantly restored, and we now have excellent viewing copies that weren’t previously available. In addition, we wanted to present as much variety as one ninety-minute program could do in terms of some of the central themes of the project. We wanted to look at the landscape, both physically in terms of the light and sense of sensuality of the place, as well the landscape of the mind, which deals with the freewheeling and defiantly rebellious nature. One of the other Chicago programs focused on narrative and storytelling and how that has been played with over the decades. Another program featured films that for their times used found footage in radical ways. Although Bay Area filmmakers were not the first to re-use found footage to make their own films —this history goes back to Soviet filmmaker Esther Shub or the American Joseph Cornell in the nineteen-thirties. However, Bruce Conner can be thought of as the father of the prevalent kind of contemporary found footage film, and his way of suturing together material from preexisting films to accompany music is clearly the precursor to, although at a much higher level, of music videos.

Jennifer Breckner: In the catalog you mentioned that public and private funding for experimental cinema has evaporated and that programming institutions have become more conservative. How has this affected artists working in the Bay Area? Do you see artists finding other solutions to making and showing their work?

Steve Anker: I think that this was the case in the nineteen-eighties when I began programming at S.F. Cinematheque. However, it’s less true now than during those years. It began in earnest in the nineteen-nineties but the last ten years has seen the emergence of a many younger curators and critics championing experimental film and video, and a wealth of new work is being made. There are now more international film festivals in North America and Europe that include sidebars or even entire series featuring experimental cinema. For example, last year the New York Film Festival’s “Views From the Avant-Garde” has expanded to four days from its original single weekend. In addition, Toronto, Berlin, Vienna and Rotterdam all have major experimental film components that show a wide range from established masters like Ken Jacobs to young makers who have just began gaining exposure. More and more museums are now showing experimental film and video in circumstances that are on a par with painting, sculpture and installation. Grants and patron support in these areas, however, remains scant. The depletion of financial support both with foundation as well as governmental agencies that started in the Reagan years has gotten worse. Experimental cinema was always an underground activity made by people with no money who used whatever materials they had at hand. One of the hallmarks of experimental cinema has always been this feisty spirited do-it-yourself approach. Artists who work with film know that it will not make money (with the recent exceptions of a few high profile gallery artists) and so the medium continues to attract people who accept, although sometimes grudgingly, their marginal role within the larger art culture. To be an experimental filmmaker means that one must be prepared to live with marginalization. And again, the Bay Area remains a magnet for those people who are passionate about their medium and will continue working whether or not they gain larger social success.

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