Oberhausen: Memories Can’t Wait – Film Without Film Art Monthly #377, June 2014

The theme for this year’s Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen, ‘Memories Can’t Wait – Film Without Film’ was auspicious, both for the space and scale it afforded programmatically and for its application across historical and contemporary modes. In notable contrast to last year’s somewhat hermetic theme of ‘Flatness’, and perhaps by way of an antidote, ‘Memories Can’t Wait’ was curated by an artist, Mika Taanila: a shrewd move, as a sense of openness characterised programming which might otherwise have been desiccated or overwrought.

Taanila’s ‘without’ addressed the aesthetic and conceptual parameters of ‘film without film’ – at the same time as the social and philosophical ramifications of the end of cinema. But, thankfully, it was the sense of possibility that this jettisoning of the apparatus of the moving image presents, and not a general hand-wringing about cinema’s demise which foregrounded the theme as a whole: the notion, as Taanila introduced the programme, ‘that it’s not the film itself that’s delivering you the stuff, rather it’s you who should be the protagonist’.

While there were moments in which this esse is percipi setup was answered, however, the theme as a whole failed to address adequately the provocation, or access the full potential, that the injunction ‘film without film’ summons – in particular, the cocked hammer that it represents as far as the future of moving images is concerned. In defence, this was not the result of a narrowing or reducing but, it would seem, quite the opposite: if anything, it was Taanila’s curiosity which occasionally acted against him. The programmes displayed a restlessness which was entirely laudable, but would have benefited at points from a more measured response.

In particular, where the performances and new commissions presented as part of the theme could and should have activated its premise, by pointing to what a future of ‘film without film’ might mean, they fell short, refusing to accept the challenge it seemed the theme might offer. Chris Petit and Emma Matthew’s literal, clumsy performance-as-installation-as-screening Museum of Loneliness Presents Lee Harvey Oswald’s Last Dream, 2014, was underwhelming, instrumentalising the idea of ‘film without film’ to the point where it was entirely bloodless.

The Canadian artist Daniel Barrow’s overhead-projector performances, Looking For Love in the Hall of Mirrors, 2000, and The Thief of Mirrors, 2013, felt mawkish and self-indulgent, and Julien Maire’s Demi-Pas, 2002, an ostentatiously complex setup which allowed the artist to project miniature tableaux, seemed redundant beyond a demonstration of technical capability. Ironically, perhaps, it was the performances of historic pieces which were most successful, and alive. British artist William Raban performed two works, 2’45, 1973-2014, and Take Measure, 1973, the former which had been updated to be presented digitally, something Raban admitted that he was not yet sure about, but here it worked. Morgan Fisher’s Projection Instructions, 1976, introduced a welcome levity; outwardly as ascetic as its ‘purer’ structuralist cohorts yet, where they would busy themselves with the machines of the projection process, he acknowledged instead an otherwise overlooked component – the projectionists themselves. Veteran Austrian performance artist VALIE EXPORT was present, too, to perform ABSTRACT FILM No2, 2014, an updated version of No1, 1967, which was not without its charms.

Some of the performances were staged in the shell of a former cinema, the Kino Europa-Palast, the sexagennial festival’s original venue. Although ravaged by the processes of its disassembly and of time itself, the cinema did indeed seem to have been awakened by the renewed activity: the screens necessarily temporary, rarely parallel to the audience, suggested the complexity and difference of the future rather than the sad shadow of the past.

One performance did its best to summon the latter, though: a four- projector ‘expanded cinema’ performance by Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder, On/Off, 2004, looking for all the world like an unreconstituted relic of the projector performances of the 1970s. It added nothing to the debate and threatened to maim the more progressive tendencies of ‘Memories Can’t Wait’. Of all the performances, Aura Satz’s Blink Comparator: Her Luminous Distance, 2014, presented the best prospect of wedding artistic and philosophical concerns.

‘Memories Can’t Wait’ was at its strongest in a programme for children, who activated the sense of play at the core of the works screened in a way which underscored the purpose and potential not only of those pieces but of cinema and the cinema itself – with or without film. Walther Ruttmann’s Weekend, 1930, a witty experiment from the early days of sound, was alien and exotic, and must have seemed more so to a generation denied respite from visual stimuli. In granting audience members the licence to see and interact with one another, Ernst Schmidt Jr’s Hell’s Angels, 1969, a simple, playful work in which audience members fashion images on screen with paper aeroplanes, saw the cinema as social space – neighbours usually mute and unseen – emerge and check itself. The kids got it. And this, in a sense, is more radical than any quasi- structuralist performance, and speaks most urgently to the future of cinema.

If Taanila was occasionally let down, it was largely by others. In the discussion session around the theme Petit’s rather studied pithiness turned up occasional insights, but the more ponderous approach of academics Erkki Huhtamo and Rachel Moore let the challenge posed by ‘film without film’ wither; while Huhtamo’s lecture on the pre-cinematic panorama, though affable and serviceable as a historic aide-memoire, seemed oddly reluctant to delaminate that history, to consider the fire that stoked it or to look at the reasons for summoning moving images alongside the fruits of that desire.

Despite this, though, Taanila stood out as a curator for his humility and willingness to remain curious; and it was clear throughout that, while at times it may have fell short, the theme arose from a deep engagement with the works and a belief in them. Rather the eclecticism and generosity of his selection any day, than the frigid programme it may have become in other hands. And, as the conceptual framework itself suggests, the flicker of light in a dark room is only half the story: the audiences emerged from the cinemas talking, and this itself is a small victory, renewed each year in Oberhausen.