In his 2013 book The Subterranean River of Cinema (Ponorná řeka kinematografie) Martin Čihák experiments with an approach quite unique in Eastern and Central European avant-garde film historiography. He brings Western and Eastern avant-garde traditions into a common framework.  Following in the footsteps of P. Adams Sitney, a leading film theorist of the American avant-garde, he breaks down the individual currents of film avant-garde into six subjects based on their relationship to the cinematic means of expression used: structural film, absolute film, pure film, assemblage film, spontaneous film and (traditional) avant-garde film. In each chapter Čihák introduces the main characteristics and the most well-known international representatives of the chosen trend and complements the description with the Czech perspective. With this methodology Čihák manages to create a bridge between the avant-garde film traditions of East and West and successfully demonstrates an approach that has been missing from avant-garde film theory.

 

Although Čihák’s book manages to reveal several similarities between the international and the Czech avant-garde film scene, it focuses solely on film, “as the creative consorting with light-craving matter is quite different from that of work with electronic image or digital technologies.”[1] Therefore it fails to cover the contemporary experimental film scene which in the Czech Republic is largely defined by a new generation of filmmakers who choose to cross between the analogue and digital mediums. It’s most characteristic feature is surely its diversity: the coexistence of old and new technologies, the override of the genre’s boundaries, the cooperation of different generations, and the sometimes radical transformations in individual artistic attitudes. There are a few filmmakers of different ages who are still dedicated to photochemical film and insist on showing their films only in their original format (Martin Ježek, František Týmal, Martin Klapper), but most of them either experiment with the combination and the alteration of different production and presentation methods (Martin Blažíček, Alexandra Moralesová, Petr Šprincl, Ondřej Vavrečka, Vít Pancíř, Michal Kindernay) or are committed to the exploration of the possibilities of digital technology (Kryštof Pešek, Vladimir Turner, Jakub Korselt).

 

According to Andrew Horton’s summary written in the late nineties “the Czech Republic is still at the cutting edge of new ways of looking at film and what can be done with it. […] These challenging directors are not the “heirs” of Czech avant-garde film. They remain outside the mainstream of cinema because they are faithful to their own creative individuality, and their ideas […] lie beyond marketability.”[2] In his book published over ten years later Peter Hames describes a similar situation reporting on an even more marginalized sector. He claims that Czech independent films only rarely make it to major film festivals and avant-garde ideas are almost absent from films shown in mainstream cinemas.[3]  Despite a large spectrum of local forums (art houses, exhibition spaces, cultural centers), the innovative attitude of several prestigious educational institutions and the specialized programs of a few renowned local film festivals (Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival, PAF Olomouc, Karlovy Vary International Film Festival) in the middle 2010s Czech experimental film remains hidden from a larger international public. Even though Czech avant-garde filmmakers and curators managed to establish a viable infrastructure for experimental film quite unique in the Eastern European region, their films only occasionally “leave the country”. While other Eastern European countries, like Poland, Romania, Hungary or Croatia send representatives to international experimental film festivals (KLEX, Ann Arbor Film Fest, EXIS, FLEX Fest etc.), Czech films are almost entirely missing from all these programs.

 

Although there are several possible explanations for this absence [4], in my opinion the real reason has little to do with any professional aspects of the contemporary Czech avant-garde film. The standoff seems to be a direct result of a particular, modest attitude quite common among Czech experimental filmmakers. According to my personal experience even some of the most established artists tend to be quite shy about their work and sometimes even hide their earlier pieces even though many of those films proved to be outstanding not only on a national, but on an international level. Horton’s 1998 article endnote seems to prove that this attitude is not at all new: “we should meet [these challenging new filmmakers] on their own ground to evaluate them, inevitably something only a brave few will be prepared to do.” [5]

 

Platforms and Institutions

 

Despite Horton’s rather ambiguous suggestion regarding the need for bravery to explore Czech experimental filmmakers, modesty does not result in complete isolation. Several filmmakers of different age put some of their films onto online video sharing sites. Filmmakers who engage in experimental documentaries are often present on more official online distribution platforms, like DAFILMS.com or dokweb.net which is the key online project of the Prague based Institute of Documentary films. Researchers who have the opportunity to travel to Prague can find a large amount of experimental films in the digital archive of FAMU’s Center for Audiovisual Studies (CAS) which – thanks to the helpful work of a few key figures of the scene like Martin Blažíček, Eric Rosenzweig and Tomáš Pospiszyl – is available for international researchers. They also actively participated in the publication of an English language brochure[6] introducing the main theories and practices of CAS, now a key institution for Czech contemporary experimental film.

 

CAS is an art school sitting inside a film school whose primary concerns are production values and narrative structure. CAS on the other hand is “a space to develop a practice in making moving image work beyond cinema. […] Students use whatever media they require, in combination with any other. [They can express themselves through] a facility with bleaching 35 mm film or writing computer code [or] video installation in the gallery space.”[7] In CAS students are encouraged to transition from making fixed works and to reach beyond traditional filmmaking techniques. As a result most experimental works made in CAS are not traditional films meant to be strictly screened in a darkened cinema hall but independent audio-visual art pieces requiring different modes of presentation.

 

Territories – Video and Film

 

As CAS students are focusing on exploring the possibilities of the new digital media, most of the known avant-garde film practices (especially hand made cinema) are now less used. Several of these audio-visual pieces balance on the verge of video art and experimental film (works of Kryštof Pešek, Michal Kindernay, Vladimir Turner, Dalibor Knapp etc.) Still it has not resulted in video artists connected to fine art and applied art institutions (AVU, UMPRUM) engaging in experimental cinema practices. A few exceptions (most importantly Michal Pěchouček and Zbynek Baladrán) aside, video art and avant-garde film only seem to meet in the works of artists graduating from FAMU or Brno University of Technology. Or in the case of Petr Hátle, Hana Železná and Michal Kindernay graduating from both. Just like in most Eastern European countries in the Czech Republic video art and experimental film seem to keep to their own territories.

 

Although there are filmmakers who tend to insist on working with a specific medium (Martin Ježek and Martin Klapper solely works with analogue film), in the Czech Republic most filmmakers and audio-visual artists experiment with different media. As for individual oeuvres Martin Blažíček’s is one of the unique ones, as his interests cover a wide range of attitudes from strictly analogue, traditional hand-made film practices to open live coding group experiments. His oeuvre includes several aspects along which contemporary Czech experimental film practices and theories can be analyzed and to some extent categorized. Without a doubt for over fifteen years Blažíček has been one of the most prominent Czech experimental filmmakers and the most well-known internationally even if he does not consider himself a representative of the trend any more and often expresses his concerns about the vagueness of the term itself.[8]

 

Preserving the Film’s Body – Analogue Practices

 

For decades film studies, therefore experimental film studies as well have been dealing with an object that no longer exists; it ceased existing as an object of study in the 1970’s when cinema as “the projection of photographically recorded filmstrip in a theatrical setting”[9] was replaced by various other means of presentation. Just like in other Eastern European countries, in the Czech Republic there is a revival in interest in traditional techniques of cinema. Here the renewed popularity influenced more than “just” the filmmaking techniques, it resulted in a preoccupation with practical issues concerning restoration (Tereza Frodlová) and theoretical questions focusing on the inherent, material quality of the photochemical film and its role in contemporary art. Matěj Strnad who has a “deeply rooted urge to both attack and defend film”[10], is dedicated to the examination of the latter problem and to making clear distinctions between analogue and digital media. Among many other projects he is a founding member of Kinoaparát.cz, a platform focused on analogue film as a specific means of expression, which strives to protect, spread and further develop the knowledge of classical film technology.

 

Strnad’s theoretical and practical attitude is in a certain sense the continuation or rather an update of  Blažíček’s artistic credo in the late nineties, who by experimenting with different handmade cinema practices (he combined direct filmmaking methods with chemical processes in Neo-B; by exploiting the synthetic power of the optical printer he created a collage of moving images in Test) put an emphasis on the materiality of film and the artisanal nature of filmmaking which attitude can be interpreted as a protest against the complete digital switchover. Although his theoretical and practical focus has altered over the years, Blažíček’s long involvement with expanded cinema practices (Ultra Group, Mikroloops) supports his “fate” in the unrepeatability of a single film screening.

 

Utilizing a specific aspect of film: its ritual, performative quality, Martin Ježek is considered one of the main representatives of analogue filmmaking among Czech experimental filmmakers. A projectionist at Prague Oko Cinema and a conductor on trans-European night trains Ježek is a rather romantically old-fashioned figure of the Czech contemporary art scene. It is not bravery – as Horton suggested – but persistence that is needed if one wants  to track down his films. Just like Martin Klapper and in some occasions František Týmal, Ježek never agreed to digitize his pieces, which he tends to present in different ways: occasionally a lucky few can catch a modest intimate screening in a private flat or in a hidden corner of a university, even witnessing one of his films burning out during the projection. Other  times he performs in front of a huge international crowd in Jihlava or Rotterdam. Over the years he developed a specific method of 8mm film making, using a montage of intuitively recorded images in combination with a similarly multi-layered, elaborate soundtrack. As for subjects and genres, Ježek has been experimenting across the entire spectrum of cultural margins . His works include novel adaptations (A House Far Away), a fascinating luminescent poem (Kontralicht) and a found footage home movie covering an audiovisual composition for two 8mm projectors, 2 stereopticons, guitar, electrophonic organ and a magnetic tape (Mr ROMAN) .

 

Alexandra Moralesová and František Týmal represent the newest generation of Czech experimental filmmakers. They both follow in the footsteps of Blažíček (his works from the nineties ),  Ježek and Alice Růžičková as they work with film in the stage of production, post-production and presentation and take a stand on analogue film with the emphasis of the uniqueness of its language. But while Týmal belongs to a narrow circle  of contemporary avant-garde filmmakers who – for ideological reasons – show most of their films exclusively o n their original format, Moralesová is more permissive when making digital copies of her analogue pieces. It is essential to note though that her decision to take a partly digital approach is not to surrender to economic pressure and convenience but to create a contrast to illustrate the remarkable nature of film through analogies and parallels. In her films the digital override does not inherit a negative connotation. For example in the case of her 2011 film Shuttered Cut (Vlasy), the whole film was shot on 8mm reversal film and later scanned to video partly to illustrate the distinction between the two materials and their specific tool sets.

 

Already these few examples show that analogue techniques are still common among contemporary avant-garde filmmakers even if the majority of the active audio-visual experimenters rely mainly on digital techniques. As most experimental filmmakers are concerned about the discovery of new technologies and their global effect (artistic, social, economic etc.), certain hand-made techniques (paint on glass, optical printing) are missing from the repertoire.[11] Proportionally Czech experimental filmmakers – like most Eastern European directors – tend to create more intellectual or maybe more conceptual works than the most relevant Western artists, of whom many prefer the more traditional, hand-made avant-garde practices.

 

Digital Revolution – The Criticism of Liberation

 

“In the 1990s computers and somewhat later the World Wide Web became part of our daily routine and the boom of digitalization seemed to herald the dawn of a new era, not only in terms of communication, but also in the fine arts. Although contemporary artists, filmmakers and musicians all employ digital technology in the making and distributing of their work, only a handful of them have actually critically engaged with the nature of the digital revolution per se.” [12]  – claims Pospiszyl in his essay. In Czech audio-visual education (especially in CAS) the coexistence of theory and practice is essential because it encourages artists and researchers to always aim for a critical view of the chosen topic. As the apparent theoretical charge of the analogue pieces introduced in the previous chapter show, contemporary Czech experimental films aim always higher than “just” pleasing the senses. This attitude is even more emphasized in the case digital pieces, which often investigate results of the liberation (?) granted by the universally accessible technologies. The Czech experimental film scene provides several notable audio-visual works dealing with different aspects of the digital revolution, most of all the changing nature of authorship (Pešek), the social context (Kindernay) and the analogue-digital archiving (Strnad)

 

One of the most recognized experimental filmmaker and theorist of the country, Pešek mainly works with open source tools, primarily processing, to produce generative visuals focused on particular issues related to computers, perception, art and society. In his Documat (2007) experiment he investigates the shift in the role of the artist, who from being the “conscious instigator of the image” turns into someone who merely sets up the approximate sequence of events which will take place.”[13] By programming abstract self-generating structures he illustrates the radically different nature of authorship. In the end of this particular film Pešek even secures the message with a clear end note: “You have been witnesses of automatic capture process. Me as an author of the machine, do not consider myself to be an author of this film.” The aesthetics of the imagery is marked by the programmed device, therefore even if they seem completely chaotic, the images and sequences of the film (the sudden movements, the abrupt jumps between the vertical and horizontal lines, the unusual framing, and the constant loss of focus) are parts of a coherent system, are the documentations of a specific device. Besides the authorship here Pešek also questions the liberating effect that the new technology had on today’s art. He points out that these devices not only became a standard and indispensable part of our lives but we seem to stop regarding them as complex systems. By giving them simple instructions we let them act on their own.[14]

 

Following on a similar path (among others) in his Camera Altera[7] project Kindernay investigates the social context of the effect of the new technologies on our everyday lives and aims for the designation and analysis of a “hidden parallel word of the electronic imagination”[15] which by now became a place of its own. What Kindernay refers to is a segment of our environment or in other words a complex channel system inherited by an incomprehensible amount of data forwarded by mobile phones and computers consisting of information about every single person who uses them. Wind*Box is In many of his interdisciplinary projects Kindernay aims to reveal a fragile but fundamental relationship between nature and technologies.[16] His short non-narrative films (Pollution Movies) are the documentations of his experiments conducted by his unique instruments which use the methods of environmental sensors based recordings of audio and visual (Wind*Box [17], Camera Altera). The imagery created by these instruments show extreme diversity: it varies from grainy landscapes to colorful abstract patterns.

 

Strnad [19] is also involved in creating critical experimental digital works often to express how the digital copies – and the new interfaces – deprive the original pieces from their experimental potential. His 2009 video piece Der Absolute Richter is a digital transmediation, an attempt at a complete digital restoration of Hans Richter pioneering film Rhythmus 21 regarded as one of the earliest abstract or avant-garde films in cinema history. As Strnad explains: “The original film circulates among contemporary viewers almost exclusively in the form of a digital derivative or rather poor quality, thus obscuring the full genius of Richter’s project. I therefore decided to embark on a project of the absolute restoration or reconstruction of the film by recreating it by digital means in its entirety.“ Using a specific animation program Strnad traced the original motion more or less frame by frame, using key frames to record their physical characteristics.  He deleted the original layer, which was a transcript of Richter’s film and transformed it into pure digital image, capturing it its most abstract form. Just like Moralesová’s Shuttered Cut, Strnad’s film disregards the idea that photochemical film can be interchanged for any other medium. While Moralesová focuses on the difference between the two languages and the set of tools they require, Strnad addresses the philosophical, ethical and practical problems of digital audio-visual archiving which has inspired several conferences and theoretical works over the world: the concern with the loss of the substance of the original material while forcing it into another environment.

 

Summary

 

Czech experimental filmmakers are known for being eager to come up with different approaches (environmental, social, ethical) to reflect to and to analyze the effect of the latest technologies , even if it means distancing themselves from the traditional film language. What brings Czech analogue and digital filmmakers to a common denominator is their fascination with performance: expanded cinema and live cinema, or in certain cases live coding practices. Some of them prefer 8 mm film collages accompanied by live instrumental music, others test the limits of the audience with hours of flickering digital abstract images next to a cacophony  of industrial noise – all of them create an unrepeatable experience. In the age of digital reproduction they all provide something entirely unique.

Written by: Dorottya Szalay
English proofreader: Johannes Wachs

 

Special thanks to Martin Blažíček, Eric Rosenzveig and Tomas Pospiszyl for their help and advice.
The research was funded by the Visegrad Fund.


 

Note: This article is based mainly on my personal experience and insights gained during my scholarship stay in Prague. It does not aim to give a comprehensive overview of the contemporary Czech experimental film scene, but only to highlight some of it’s most relevant aspects

[1] Čihák, Martin (2013) Ponorná řeka kinematografie.  Prague: NAMU, p. 268.
[2] Horton, Andrew J. (1998) „KINOEYE: Avant-garde Film and Video in the Czech Republic”, Central Europe Review, 1998. October 5, no. 2.
[3] Hames, Peter (2009) Czech and Slovak Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, p. 163.
[4] Language barrier, financial limitations etc.
[5] Horton, 1998
[6] Rosenzveig, Eric and Pospiszyl, Tomas eds. (2013) CAS – Co to je? / What is it? Prague: NAMU
[7] Rosenzveig and Pospiszyl, 2013, pp. 12-14.
[8] Referring to a correspondence between Blažíček and me in the summer of 2015.
[9] Rodowick, 2007 in Flueckiger, Barbara (2012) “Material properties of historical film in the digital age”, NECSUS, European Journal of Media Studies, Autumn/2012.
[10] Matej Strnad (2013) „Alexandra Moralesová, František Týmal and Working with Film – Between Attitude and Platitude”, in. Rosenzveig, Eric and Pospiszyl, Tomas eds. (2013) CAS – Co to je? / What is it? Prague: NAMU, p. 201.
[11] The main exception of the younger generation is Týmal who experiments with several hand-made cinema techniques.
[12] Pospiszyl, Tomáš (2013) „Electronic Brushes, Celluloid Canvases, Digital Literature”, in. Rosenzveig, Eric and Pospiszyl, Tomas eds. (2013) CAS – Co to je? / What is it? Prague: NAMU, p. 219.
[13] Blažíček, Martin (2013) “Places of Their Own: Technology and Art in the Post-Digital Age.” in. Rosenzveig, Eric and Pospiszyl, Tomas eds. (2013) CAS – Co to je? / What is it?, Prague: NAMU, p. 94.
[14] Blažíček, 2013, p. 94.
[15]  Camera Altera consist of a wooden sensory box containing tracking algorithms for recording its surroundings. The holder of the box carries it with them for a certain period of time, and after the device made a survey of the habitat of the bearer it begins to film without its user’s control
[16] Ibid, p. 95.
[17] Šedivá, Barbora (2011) „Michal Kindernay, Guy van Belle”, Artyčok, 18. September 2011.
[18] Wind Box is similar to Kindenay’s Camera Altera, but is less complex. This device is equipped with a wind sensor, and it uses wind as a basic trigger.
[19] For more of Strnad’s projects discovering the aspects of digital media, see narra.eu