A discussion of the treatment of time and space in 90s experimental cinema coupled with a consideration of globalization and its relationship to televisual media. This sets the stage for an analysis of the ways experimental cinema uses dead time and visual plasticity to challenge the concept of a ‘window on the world’ and a hysteria for the present.
“They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
between stars-on-stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home,
to scare myself with my own desert places”
– Robert Frost, “Desert Places” in Further Range, 1936
Since the end of the last century, globalization has begun to show severe alienating effects. The national interest yields to the international and the local to the global. Citizens of this mass mediated society assume the status of cultural immigrants, as they learn to suspend the inclination to define themselves in terms of geographical locales, which to this point has been an important part of our sense of belonging. In a culture obsessed with speed and where every invention is aimed at killing time, increased access to remote places erodes the notion of distance. While the new expanded possibilities for rapid travel in the physical world may or may not affect our sense of location, in the two-dimensional universe of visual mass media, especially television and the internet, we receive this concept of growing proximity directly in our homes and minds. Instead of physically traveling by car, boat or plane, many of us travel at home by letting our fingers do the walking and our brains do the flying.
It has been observed that:
television effectively seizes instantaneity as the mark of ‘presence,’ while dislocating the bonds of place which once held this matrix together. But, because tele-presence is a function of pure speed without necessary relation to place, the increasing reliance on television as a means of cultural and political integration rapidly generates new social tensions. This is evident in the instability of traditional sites of political and social interaction (room, home, street, city) as well as the growing uncertainty of the borders of cultural belonging (national territory, linguistic unity, ethnic homogeneity). This is not to posit this transformation as a cause for despair, but to insist on thinking its epochal implications. (McQuire, 251-152) 
Moving Image Artists, who are also media specialists, contribute to such thinking. Their work contrasts and reframes the televisual “window on the world” as first and foremost a medium shaped by an industry – a flatland with only two dimensions and a limited spatio-temporal perspective, both in form and content. 
By definition, experimental film bypasses the traditional narrative structures and techniques of the mainstream cinema; it explores unconventional modes of visual and emotional experience and alternative themes—often taboo ones. Much of the work produced in the 1990s, in a solipsistic reflex against alienation, tells personal stories (see list of selected films and videos below). Perhaps this narrowing of thematic scope reflects disillusionment with the broad socio-political themes of the 1980s, the concentration of the media, and the erosion of localized sovereignties by transnational capital. This important redefinition of space coincided with the count-down to the turn of the century, a historical marker that always inspires people to reassess priorities.
Gunilla Josephson, Happy House
More than a century since the invention of cinema, people seem so accustomed to screen images that questions about its effects on our perception of reality, time and space have unjustly faded. In comparison with other technologies that have been credited with killing time and space, from the telegraph to the railway to space travel, moving images have profoundly affected our perceptions of self and culture. This justifies, I think, the media artist’s urge to challenge and expose the authority of values such as linearity, continuity and homogeneity. These values rule mainstream film and television and teach us to give up our sense of reality, which is not necessarily continuous. It is by valuing ambiguity and contradiction that we resist the pressure to congratulate the emperor on his new clothes. With the American dream next door, this poses a special challenge for Canadian experimental film artists: to be rigorous in the quest to understand the terms of this new world order and its enforcement through images.
Tele-Vision and Retro-Vision
Thanks to recent computer technologies we observe the Global Village in real-time though our various windows onto today’s world: Webcam Internet Sites and televised live reports of news, sports, survivors on an island and idols who compete to be the next stars. All these tools give expression to our culture of haste, our obsession with the present moment, and the constant desire to ‘annihilate distance with speed, to overcome absence with the limitless body of technology (and) to reside in the enigmatic interval of the absolute instant’ (McQuire, 251). Television, challenging its mother, Cinema, and its nephew, Video, exemplifies this preoccupation with the now and our culture of the im-_media_-tely.
Television is ruled by the need to communicate the present and to be present at all times, a requirement so addictive that everywhere it keeps viewers locked to their screen, believing that they are experiencing “reality” and “living” history. “To switch on the TV is to plug the self into an optical-electronic field of immediacy, a zone of accelerated perceptions generating the aura of instant availability so crucial in defining ‘the world’ today” (McQuire, 251). Television is obsessed with bringing us live “history-making-events” in a constant linear sequence, as much as it is obsessed with avoiding, at all costs, moments of “dead time”. This is what McQuire describes as the ever-present undercurrent of television: “a profound dis-ease when confronted by the stare of empty time” (256).
An extension of television’s (encoded) obligation to keep us up-to-date on an hourly basis and a strong antidote against empty time was the magical extension of time at the turn of the twentieth century. Television transformed the instant between 12:00:00 PM on 31 December 1999 and 01:00:00 AM on 1 January 2000 into a 24-hour “experience of a life-time”. It broadcast a journey across all of the time zones of the Global village, allowing us to zap together from east to west, celebrating, to the exclusion of all other times, our western conception of time as a linear series of moments. We blithely repressed both the heterogeneity of time and diverse experiences of time.  We ignored the paradox of time that we have been struggling with since Aristotle – that time is always now, yet the “now” cannot be grasped. We took part in a spectacle of a culture that has completely lost track of time in search of an obsolete present which constantly disappears in the binary bits of over-dissected seconds dispersed over high-speed information highways.
Yet these instant gratifications of our need to be present, have NOT satisfied our fundamental need to understand time and space. They have only CHANGED our spatio-temporal perspective, allowing technological imperatives, acceleration and proximity, to predominate. Scott McQuire describes this as “the total spectacle of objects and events in a global milieu where relevance is defined by the guillotine of the instant” (257). Globalized citizens may find it useful to consider how the principle “survival of the fittest” in Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859) has morphed into “survival of the Quickest” in the struggle against obsolescence. The powers who decide what is relevant are those who control the speediest tools. Scott McQuire states that “the fundamental problem of ‘tele-presence’ is precisely what produces its seductive power: it leaves no time for the other, for the otherness of time, for the memory of what resists being shown – what is not seen or shown on television…. passes unacknowledged” (257). And exactly here lies a tremendous opportunity for experimental film and video in our fast-paced “global” world: to remember that which resists being seen or shown.
Jean Theberge, Traversee
This remembering entails redefining concepts such as home, nation, community and identity in combination with values to which they have always been systematically opposed: strangeness, difference, dispersion. It means foregrounding what is most vigorously repressed in western thought and by its most influential representative, television – the heterogeneity of time and identity which resists the necessity to BE PRESENT. Photography, film and video images do not share the tele-visual insistence on presentness. They are used as aids to memory, tools to make present what is absent, to create dreams (utopia) and to bring back what has been lost (nostalgia). Images have become our memories. Especially for the generation who grew up with television, home-movies and Kodak-moments, memory has become a matter of visual representations. At the same time we have gradually lost our blind trust in cameras as perfect memory-machines. We have learned about the mutability of every image’s truth: ‘A photograph is only a fragment, and with the passage of time its moorings come unstuck. It drifts away into soft abstract pastness, open to any kind of interpretation’ (Sontag, 71).
In this age of mass reproduction of mechanically produced images, we have also learned that it is as dangerous to remember as it is to forget. Scott McQuire describes how “The good memory posited as essential to ‘healthy’ identity so easily slides towards a memory which is too good and therefore ‘unhealthy’ – fixated, brooding, obsessive. Once again, memory finds itself subject to a double injunction: the need for a stable memory to prevent radical loss of identity must be balanced against the risk of memory becoming wedded to an unchanging past, a memory condemned to repeat the fiction of unidentified identity, whether the referent is personal or collective (‘self’, ‘nation’, ‘people’)” (167 – 168). Here again, experimental film and video offer compelling incentives to remember, to expose a changing past, and to remind us of the limits of remembering. They reveal memory as creation by showing different kinds of memory, such as the memories of those who have no voice in mainstream media, and the memory of memory.
To introduce a term, it offers ‘RETRO-vision’ in counterpoint to ‘TELE-vision’. Television means the distribution of images over long distances instantly, without the “loss” of time. Television is obsessed with bringing us live “history-making-events” in a constant linear sequence, avoiding at all costs moments of “dead” time.  Retro-vision however works backward and inwardly to collect and arrange images, to bring them closer, to bring them back, boldly losing, gaining and even ‘taking’ time. The retro-vision of art films shows life in a slower-paced, different frame – re-incarnated, alive but not “live”, and without fear of “dead” time.
Retro-vision is also introspective. The approach of the millennium, which fueled a new anxiety, the so-called millennium dread, and globalization reinforced the need to focus on the personal, and to affirm both history and identity. The experimental works of the 1990s reflect these changes. They are autobiographical, self-referential and often not ‘chrono-logical’ but with a different logic. They reflect the changing times using various time changes (in shooting and editing) and other idiosyncratic techniques.
It is the striking stylization (or anti-naturalism) of experimental film that announces its expressive and discursive aims. These films draw attention to the physical fact of the medium: the fragility of film stock, the fluctuations in the electromagnetic signal, the pixels; Super-8 and 8mm film, home video, found footage, still photos and other inexpensive formats are all mixed in. Their anachronistic, archival appearance reinforces themes of time and memory. Alongside our speedy amnesic culture, experimental films and videos write, re-write and pre-write plots and stories which make us conscious of the puzzling workings of time and memory. They produce these effects by freezing, repeating, compressing or extending events, by mimicking the editing processes of human memory (in manual, optical, and digital manipulations of the image), by showing us the rapid aging of images (in scratches, dust, faded colors, grain and overexposures), and above all by re-digitizing, splicing and re-splicing the material that is constantly cut away by television’s “guillotine of the instant” and working according to Mae West’s axiom: ‘Anything worth doing, is worth doing slowly’.
Trans-Mission and Trans-Vision
The dreams and nightmares made by broadcast television possess an uncanny ability to merge with our life stories. As viewers of television news we may experience ourselves as part of an integrated audience regardless of our political stance toward the issues reported. The endlessly repeated spectacle of the collapse of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001 united viewers as witnesses to an unprecedented event, in a phantom “public sphere”. Yet recognizing that this space hardly represents a forum for debate or action, and constantly bombarded by messages of terror, many “global” citizens returned to the sure and the secure, cocooning themselves in their homes, clinging to the everyday and the familiar.
The faster media become, the more static their users seem to be. It is no coincidence that the once glamorous symbol of modernity, the Concorde, was recently grounded and parked in a museum. After the September 11 attack on New York, it has become too expensive and insecure to keep this exquisite supersonic airplane in the air, even though it miraculously shrank time and space, fulfilling our culture’s most profound desire. Now, however, we (and not just the very rich) can travel the world in only seconds with the click of a mouse or a remote control. We can bridge any distance at any instance. “With the ubiquity of the screen, identity loses its once elementary reliance on place: who you are and what you know are less a function of where you are” (McQuire 253). The world is one big scene, and its window is a flat screen.
Neil Burns, Grace Eternal
The term “screen space” denotes the pictorial space of time-based media (film and video) as distinguished from the physical space that surrounds us. Screen space is pictorial because its two dimensionality and visible discontinuity from surrounding space cut out by the frame. Within that frame, and largely because of it, film can generate a credible illusion of reality while still being thought of as a picture, a “moving picture”. This schizophrenic characteristic of moving images has long been the topic of debate between film theorists.  Rudolf Arnheim (Film as Art 1957) has argued that because film works without depth (hence the choice to call it a flatland) and because sizes and shapes are distorted in proportion and perspective, the spectator’s attention is drawn to the formal elements of the images as an artificial composition. (Many abstract films play on this.)
But this stance overlooks the mise-en-scène of screen space and its service to realism. The two dimensional composition within the film frame, represents a three-dimensional space in which the action occurs, and that is where our attention goes, guided by depth clues that sustain the illusion of deep space. Time-based mainstream media urge us to look through film to see the story, rather than at it to analyze its visual construction. Hence the realistic qualities of film. Add to the plasticity of screen space the magic of editing and Hollywood’s other standards of realism, and we get a visual construction of the world, continuous in time and space, that appears to be realistic no matter how improbable the story.
Experimental films reclaim screen space by demonstrating its specific properties and by exhibiting anti-realist poetics. They also solicit radical ways of looking. Many of the Canadian experimental films of the 1990s that I have seen, offer an innovative frame on the image-world, one that distances us from screen space and forces us to look beyond, one that forces us the be the agents of a critical gaze. That is what I call TRANS-VISION. Experimental films in the 1990s carry on what Sean Cubitt calls “a philosophical exploration of relationships: unpicking and reworking the technologies through which individuals relate or fail to relate to one another, unpacking the relationships between one mode of technological relationship and another, and between each of them and the wider world” (205). Through this process, artists question the frames to which we have become so acculturated; mainstream cinema and television broadcasts, and the screening of a reality of which they are both the center and the driving force.  Anything left out of their view is there to be recovered by artists: both the off-screen space and the workings of the on-screen space of a fast expanding media universe that is a limited universe, a “flatland”.
Experimental work contrasts with the pervasive aesthetic of (reality-)television with its flattening effect on our culture and so-called open window on the world. Film and video artists use various techniques to reclaim screen space by demonstrating its specific properties. Similar to the discussion above with regards to retro-vision, it is significant that many travelogues evoke the reconstructive processes of human memory and imagination by means of blurs, flashes, cuts, and freeze-frames, offering strong anti-realist, poetic images and narratives. In a similar way, experimental films reclaim the screen for telling personal stories with a special attention to difference. Media artists recognize that despite mass media’s recent attempts to include more people in the scene (e.g. American Idol, Canadian Idol, Survivor, Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire, tabloid talk shows and the like), the mainstream frame still leaves a tremendous world off-screen. “As the relater of relationships, the TV in particular has become a standardizer, relating to a golden mean, and reducing as much as possible the use of the media as a terrain of struggle” (Cubitt, 204). Experimental work can transcend this limited frame by exposing what is left behind or off to the side. This makes for provocative work with unsettling close-ups and moving images.
Another common strategy of artists at a time when the home is constantly being redrafted as a secure site in which to consume images of remote origin is to work against this notion by transforming the “home” into a strange or insecure place. While global citizens and their media now concentrate (self-protectively) more on the common place, this has long since been the typical terrain of art films and videos. Instead of portraying the home as a protected window on the world, they gladly refurnish it and strip it of its safety blanket, exposing “home” as a place of struggle: they make it explode with questions of identity, and implode under the weight of uncertainty. In these films the notion that “there is no place like home” obtains a haunting resonance. While many TV travelogues and reportages are still about “I have been places and seen things”, the new hegemony of modern media in the home inspires art work that illustrates another famous expression by Mae West: “I have been things and seen places”.
I didn’t go to the moon,
I went much further,
For time is the longest distance
Between two places.
– Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie (1945)
Artists have the power and imagination to reframe reality and to present a critical worldview, to puzzle together a different scene with a different time and space, to make us travel farther than the moon. Like us, they are constantly challenged to reinvent themselves in the face of a fast changing media-scape. “Recent developments in video cameras and satellite technology have once again put flesh on the bones of the old promise of a sight machine which allows us all to see anything anywhere anytime. In this bold guise contemporary television offers itself as a meta-medium or master discourse: the frame which is not itself framed” (McQuire, 243-244). It is my belief that experimental films and videos do just that, to frame what is not itself framed, including the screen frame itself.
Experimental films in general, but Canadian experimental films especially, sketch out different places and foreground diversity. Experimental films map out different spaces and show alternative conceptions of screen space: discontinuous and fissured, what I called TRANS-VISION. For me, these art films do not show a flatland, but a bold space with many dimensions and many variables. They create flexible screens overflowing with imagination and technical mastery, or a refreshing simplicity, as an antidote against the uniformity of the flashy mainstream presenting us a streamlined global world.
Globalization and the redefinition of space in general coincided with the countdown to the end of the century. Both tendencies inspired experimental film artists to refocus on the personal and to affirm history and identity. I called this RETRO-VISION, an umbrella word for a collection of films that are autobiographical, self-referential, often non ‘chrono-logical’ and clearly work against the pressure to keep up with the fleeting present. They reflexively open up the medium by soliciting alternative modes of visual and emotional experience.
“Given the hysteria of the now which directs so many forces in the contemporary world, one of the most radical changes imaginable would undoubtedly be a collective deceleration in which the pressure of time is released. Marx once described revolutions as ‘the locomotives of world history’. Walter Benjamin’s speculative response seems apt: ‘Perhaps it is totally different. That perhaps revolutions are the reaching of humanity traveling in this train for the emergency brake.’” (McQuire, 258) It is my belief that alternative media such as experimental films and video offer us indications and reflections that will help us find the emergency brake.
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