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The art of Randy Thom

 Sound designer (FW35)

Some reasons for a review of the avant-garde debates around definitions of narrativity

Jackie Hatfield
Some reasons for a review of the avant-garde debates around definitions of narrativity

Within the relatively short critical history of experimental film and video both the material conditions of the mediums, and the predominance of language and abstraction have become defining categorisations. However, the reality has been that, beginning with the Futurists and the Surrealists through to Fluxus and to date, artists have always played around with narrative and imagistic spectacle rather than being largely against it. Furthermore, the experimental moving image practices of women have also often tended towards being representational and performative, therefore the lack of written texts that engage with these intentions have had consequences on the visibility of this work. Practice leaves a trace through the critical history, so how does women’s experimental film and video practice resonate through the written texts? The current trend towards experimental documentary and ethnography evident at the Venice Biennale and Documenta II, have a long history of unsung female pioneers, largely written out of the critical histories of the avant-garde in the UK and North America in favour of the prevalent male artists within the dominant canon. In 1983, Lis Rhodes and Felicity Sparrow asked, “Do we have to delve into history and re -appropriate it?” I argue, yes, we (all of us) do; specifically I am concerned with delving into the historical and theoretical premise that avant-garde artists are anti-narrative, I will argue that because of this hegemonic stance the history of artists’ experimentation with narrativity, representation, interactivity and technology is largely un-accounted for and unwritten.

Although an important and much welcome history of single screen film and video, an anti-narrative stance has been reiterated most recently in A History of Experimental Film and Video (1999) by AL Rees. Rees may be the only person lately who has attempted to write down a relatively inclusive historical overview, yet his contention that whilst drama based film had narrative expectation built into it, the artists’ avant-garde used illusionism and narrative against themselves‚ (i.e. drama was narrative, experimental film was anti-narrative) challenges his ‘inclusive’ agenda, since it was along similar lines of definition that much of women’s practice of the 1970s and 80s was marginalized as being narrative and therefore not art (i.e. not coming from the abstract or formal film). Much of women’s practice of the 70s andand 80s was narrative-driven, certainly political, and often contextually oppositional. Although some of the work was supported institutionally and debated in the UK as the new pluralism, many of these important works have subsequently been written out of the critical history. In light of more recent participatory (of the audience) cinematic practice, the terminologies, narrative and dramaturgy need to be debated at some length, since these paradigms are tested within the work.