Expanded Cinema: A Cinema of Liberation!

Expanded Cinema: A Cinema of Liberation!
By Rébecca Mamane

In my opinion, the “expansion” of cinema relates to the novel and innovative use of all elements which pertain to the moving image, including the manipulation of the physical medium, the method of public presentation, the palette of filmmaking techniques applied, and even the literal expansion of the cinema beyond the screen through the juxtaposition of live performance with image projection. Expanded cinema is about liberating the filmmaker from the shackles of rigid conventions and rules, and in parallel, it is also about liberating the audience. The possibilities for artistic expression through the moving image are endless and have yet to be more widely explored.

The need for an expansion of the art form arises from the problem of representation: every filmmaker who attempts to display some kind of truth encounters a problem with its expression. Rendering a more complete picture of truth with its intricacies, contradictions and external points of view may prove to be quite a daunting task, particularly when working within the realm of traditional cinema which often rests upon a decidedly literary foundation. Consequently, it has tended to take on the general structure of classic theatre with the presence of a narrative, a coordinated succession of events, clear causal relationships, coherent temporal and spatial progression, and characters with set personalities. But it is precisely by moving away from this rigid literary form that it may become possible to expand the meaning of film.

In recent years, filmmakers have attempted to reproduce the unique quality of human experience by partaking in the creation of unique cinematic exhibits which change upon each screening. This cinema of the present-tense exists as a unique hyper-realistic event which can never be revisited outside of one’s own distorted memory. Peter Greenaway’s Writing on Water is an example of this sort of present-tense cinema. His performance incorporates live music and a gigantic selection of film loops from which he can choose from on a television screen. In many cases, this type of non-narrative cinema does not give solutions to the public, nor does it aspire to propagate moral, ethical or philosophical absolutes: it often leaves things inconclusive without pre-supposing a causal relationship between events depicted in film. It is thus faithful to the incertitude and vagueness of life.

As a filmmaker, it is quite possible to hand over a bit of control to the audience by allowing it to play an active role in the construction of a film, thereby providing the audience with an opportunity to derive new meaning and to expand upon the filmmaker’s original proposition. Polar life by Graeme Ferguson (1970) is a multi-screen film which reproduces a panoramic view of the Earth’s poles. During screenings, the audience sat on a central rotating plate surrounded by eleven fixed screens. The viewer would rotate, allowing him to view three screens at once. The sequences presented on the screens would sometimes form coherent relationships and would sometimes be fragmented. Each viewer would therefore have quite a different experience as he would be piecing the film together in a completely unique way.

Since the advent of the Internet, the communal cinematic experience has become increasingly rare. It has thus become a necessity for cinema to develop as an exhilarating and diversified experience in order to survive.



Patrice James

Various experimental filmmakers are lauding and embracing the concept of Expanded Cinema as it relates to film; these avant-garde film artists are leading the charge; attempting to create an antithetical cinematic experience.  As the commercial film industries both in North America & globally continue to be the ‘pushers’ of new digital technologies as the most viable mode for both the production & presentation of moving imagery; and while various pundits continue to proclaim ‘the death of film’, there is a resurgence occurring especially in the area of experimental film art making.

In a commercial moving image production and dissemination environment, where the material practice of filmmaking is now under fire; where craft is not as essential as accessibility, affordability, expediency and profitability; experimental film artists are creating an alternative, subversive response to filmmaking.  They’re DIYing; creating their own film stocks, bypassing labs by hand processing their film stocks, and creating alternative presentation and viewing experiences, which are posited outside of a conventional single-channel film presentation and viewing experience.  These artists are pushing the boundaries of filmmaking by truly engaging with the film material itself.  Artists like IFCO’s own Roger D. Wilson and Dave Johnson, are joining the ranks of talented Canadian Independent film artists like Amanda Dawn Christie, and Christopher Becks, usurping control over their engagement with the filmic process, both in creation and presentation.  

In the 21st century, independent film artists are carving out a unique niche for themselves; steadfastly standing their ground in an ocean of hyper-digital discourse which has appropriated the identity of film (emulsion) with no regards for the subtlety, beauty, and extraordinary resiliency of the medium itself. Film doesn’t just lay still; images aren’t simply captured in motion; they’re imprinted. You can scratch on film, bury it, burn it, and it still captures an image, without ever having to run it through a camera; even as it decomposes from ‘wear & tear’, film still provides a salvageable aesthetic.  And not all film has to be screened in a black box; film can be mobile; site specifically presented and installed;   the possibilities are endless.  

And even as these artists experiment, they’re not creating filmic experiences in silos; they’re not attempting to confuse or alienate their audiences, on the contrary; the 21st century notion of Expanded Cinema, creates new, exciting and alternative opportunities for audiences to question, observe and engage with filmmakers.  They’re not simply ‘eyes glued’ to a conventional movie screen, being ‘spoon fed’ ‘run of the mill’ three or five act ‘storytelling’ with passive appreciation.  I’d also dare assert that Expanded Cinema in the 21st century has additionally somewhat democratized filmmaking, in that there are various creative prospects for novice filmmakers to readily engage with the film material outside of the traditional modes of production.  As aforementioned, there are lots of ways in which one can manipulate film, without even having to use a camera.

Of course I am not naive, and am not attempting to suggest here that Expanded Cinema practices provide a ‘fail safe’ to the contemporary challenges facing the film medium.  We are living in a rapidly increasing digital reality, though this said; there are still several independent and commercial filmmakers who are shooting on film, who are still solely interested in the single-channel presentation experience; who wish to shoot their films and have them processed and transferred by a lab, and these filmmakers can also be perceived as somewhat working within an Expanded Cinema framework, in that they’re daring to work within a medium that is considered by the naysayers as being no longer necessary or popular towards the proliferation of filmmaking and cinema.  So as the marketplace and manufactured artistry submerge the commercial sphere of film production and presentation, Expanded Cinema of old, is now in the 21st century vigorously cultivating a new identity. 


Expanded Cinema? 21st century?

Expanded Cinema? 21st century?
Dave Johnson

The term Expanded cinema was first used in the mid 1960’s by artists Carolee Schneemann and Stan Vanderbeek to describe their multimedia performances. Later, in the early 1970’s, a book titled “Expanded Cinema” was published by Gene Youngblood. Expanded Cinema, simply argued, is the form of motion picture projection or exhibition which denies that of the traditional conventions of the industrial model of cinema as known to the mainstream viewer. Expanded Cinema goes beyond a simple projection intended to be viewed passively. This type of cinema becomes more open to experimentation where the artist’s intention and the viewer’s interpretation or experience can become interactive, a performance, sculpture, etc. which is outside the four wall black box cinema. This type of cinema lends itself to be presented in either formal or non-formal settings, such as an art gallery, coffee house, park or even a warehouse. This being said, Expanded Cinema can also be presented in a conventional black box cinema.
Cinema, as described by a former professor, is a medium which contains the elements of light, time and space. Expanded Cinema takes these elements and experiments with, and pushes their boundaries. This is a requirement to what Youngblood describes as a “new consciousness” for media art. In short, Expanded Cinema brings forward, motion picture as a specific art form, and not just a passive viewing experience as prescribed by conventional cinema projected in a commercial theater.
The notion of Expanded Cinema in the 21st century as it relates to “film” is seeing a sense of a revival or, as Youngblood describes, in a different context, a “new consciousness”. In the not so distant past, the simple act of scratching or painting on film, setting up a 16mm projector in public or gallery setting had become something that was not seen as revolutionary or particularly inventive. In fact it could be argued that the avant-garde had become the old-garde. However, with the surge of the digital medium and it’s saturation in the consumer market, emulsion based installations are being presented to the mainstream as a unique and specific art form unto itself. Participants or viewers of emulsion based Expanded Cinema are being drawn to this format, and perceive these “ready-made” objects as sculptural, and the images illuminating the screens (or whatever the artist chooses to project onto) are seen as “intense”, “unique”, “magnificent”, “beautiful” (these are only some of the one word comments taken from viewing participants at the recent presentation by Alex MacKenzie). Expanded Cinema as it relates to film in the 21st century is experiencing a generational changeover and its offspring is coming in the form of new artists and collectives, such as Ottawa’s Windows Collective, Montreal’s DoubleNegative Collective, to name a couple. Furthermore, artists of the Avant-Garde of yesterday are being further celebrated and recognized for their contribution to a form of art and cinema important to the oeuvre of media art.     

Intermedia and The Identity of Film

Intermedia and The Identity of Film
By Sasha Vreca

"What is your understanding about the notion of expanded cinema in the 21stcentury as it relates to the film medium?"
Upon trying to answer this question I found myself in a total state of mind fog, unable to articulate with full confidence my thoughts on the subject. This was partially due to the fact that we’re presently experiencing a constant state of intermedia with regards to art; this is the nature of things in the post-modernism line of thought we’ve inherited from the 20th century. Intermedia was originally a concept employed in the mid-sixties by Fluxus artist Dick Higgins to describe the often confusing, inter-disciplinary activities that occur between art genres. And so, while sorting through my thoughts on that particular era I found myself thinking about the numerous forms that emerged out of those Fluxus years in the 60s & 70s; I speak here of performance art, installation, site specific interventions, etc. Even more so, I was astonished how film and other emulsion based work managed to morph and adapt to fit into the discourse. 

Vito Acconci - Three Adaptation Studies, 1970

For me, expanded cinema seemed to be nothing more than a way of stating we’re working outside of the conventional presentation format, but due to developments and evolution of the art form over the last century, notably the Fluxus years, we can’t grasp a full understanding of the notion. In order to prevent further confusion when I speak of expanded cinema, I mean to  clarify that I’m no longer addressing the content of the frame with regards to film; the Dadaists, Surrealists, Minimalists, Expressionists, etc. have advanced that discourse far enough and others still carry on. We are far removed here from a Ballet Mécanique(1924) or Marcel Duchamp’s Anémic Cinéma (1926), however relevant these works may still be, I see the notion of expanded cinema to be one that looks beyond the frame; one that addresses the importance of presentation as much as process, without forgetting the artist’s trace, concept and subject matter.

Carolee Schneeman, Fuses, 1967
Being aware of that, we can go back and observe the numerous examples of expanded cinema in those critical years leading to the definition of media arts as its own form of art.  In 1967, Carolee Schneemann presents her completed series ‘Fuses’ which portrayed Schneemann and her then-boyfriend James Tenney having sex as recorded by a 16 mm Bolex camera. She altered the film by staining, burning, and directly drawing on the celluloid itself, mixing the concepts of painting and collage.  ‘Fuses’ was motivated by Schneemann's desire to know if a woman's depiction of her own sexual acts was different from pornography and classical art. Much like Stan Brakhage’s work, the process caused the artist’s intimate involvement with the emulsion piece to become more apparent. The film was support for more than emulsion; it was in fact the platform for a larger external discourse; a discourse which was additionally demonstrated that same year on the Canadian side, in ‘Dans le labyrinthe’ (Roman Kroitor); a groundbreaking multi-screen presentation at Expo 67 in Montreal. 

In the Labyrinth - Dans le labyrinthe, Co-Directed by Roman Kroitor, Colin Low & Hugh O'Connor

Bruce McClure performing -
Photo by Robin Martin

Today we have torchbearers who are continuing to push the boundaries of film art, embracing intermedia to annex performance to projection. Artists such as Alex MacKenzie and Bruce McClure manipulate the projectors, light, and sound in a series of performative gestures that offer the viewer an augmented experience of the piece.  

Taking into consideration the immense progress and trends we inherited from the previous generation; the questions that still linger are the what, where and how it’s going to happened?


Projection(S): Presented as part of IFCO's INDIE FILMMAKER SERIES


Presented as part of IFCO's INDIE FILMMAKER SERIES


Alex MacKenzie is an experimental film artist working primarily with analog equipment and hand processed imagery. He creates works of expanded cinema, light projection installation, and projector performance. His work has screened at the Rotterdam International Film Festival, the EXiS Experimental Film Festival in Seoul, Lightcone in Paris, Kino Arsenal in Berlin and others. Alex was the founder and curator of the Edison Electric Gallery of Moving Images, the Blinding Light!! Cinema and the Vancouver Underground Film Festival He was an artist in residence at Atelier MTK in Grenobles, France and Struts Gallery/Faucet Media in New Brunswick.

Alex co-edited Damp: Contemporary Vancouver Media Art (Anvil Press 2008), and interviewed David Rimmer for Loop, Print, Fade + Flicker: David Rimmer's Moving Images (Anvil Press 2009). Alex was recently Artist in Residence at Cineworks' Analog Film Annex in Vancouver. 

Projection(S) featured two exciting pieces by Alex MacKenzie: 

This Charming Couple - 16mm analytic performance, 6 min, 2012 A repurposed educational film. Its original message of the risks of entering marriage without fully knowing your partner is visually abstracted, rendering a moral lesson into a
shifting landscape of emulsion. Played in reverse, the couple in question slowly move apart, becoming less and less visible as the damage worsens at film's edge; and

Logbook - 16mm analytic projector performance, 25 mins, 2011
Using black and white film emulsions handmade and painted onto raw celluloid, LOGBOOK is a visual investigation and catalogue; traces of past life and moments passed, on a remote island mountain on the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada. Filmed with a 1923 Cine-Kodak Model A--the first hand-cranked 16mm camera produced by Kodak — and presented live on a 16mm analytic projector. Frames are slowed, frozen, reversed and reprised in a study and interplay of surface and subject, where fleeting images crackle, tear and fold in on themselves to invoke the very silver nitrate of which they are made.