Although the city itself is hardly the center of the artistic world, International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, now celebrating its 60th year, is a veritable feast for the eyes, ears and intellect. Known for breaking with traditional modes of film production and the kind of narrative cinema so much of our world is preoccupied by, this year’s back-to-basics avant-garde incarnation feels a lot like an exercise in exploring intimacy. From logistics—where screenings taking place in a three cinema complex, with special performance pieces just a stone’s throw away in a rarely used underground theater—to the ease with which filmmakers, buyers, programmers, curators, academics and rarely spotted members of the public can meet and mingle, relationships between past and present, screen and viewer, space and content, are not only facilitated but simultaneously interrogated, allowing attendees to rediscover their relationship with this strange, alluring thing we call cinema.
This year’s theme, “Memories Can’t Wait—Film Without Film” pares back the cinema experience as far as it can go, removing the medium and questioning the ontology and function of the cinema space. For someone whose day job it is to put bums on seats in a rep house, the notion of cultivating audiences and building atmosphere in the auditorium is old hat. Still, what much of this program has highlighted for me is that I’ve rarely thought about the space itself—without the presence of film.
Erkki Huhtamo’s show-and-tell lecture, Panoramas in Motion: Reflections on Moving Image Spectacles Before Film (2014) took a full house of eager cinematic travelers back in time to the nineteenth century, when pre-cinema and the panorama captivated audiences. Regaling us with tales of English and American entertainers and inventors from Albert Smith to Robert Fulton, Huhtamo’s slide show presentation was equal parts informative research and tongue-in-cheek jest; we even got a glimpse of Smith’s mountaineering supply list, which featured almost as many bottles of champagne as W.E. Bowman’s parody expedition novel The Ascent of Rum Doodle (1956). A room full of giggles and guffaws seemed somehow entirely appropriate for Huhtamo’s decade long academic research into the origins of a medium designed to entertain.
A second pseudo-history lesson in the line-up hailed from Canada, with Daniel Barrow’s live overhead projector performances. Both of Barrow’s pieces, Looking for Love in the Hall of Mirrors (2000), and his more recent work The Thief of Mirrors (2013), parody the art history lectures he attended as a student whilst also paying homage to performance art and the stylized cartoon imagery of graphic novels. A lot like being tucked in and told a bedtime story, Barrow’s performances were steeped in fable—only without the moralizing. If any message could be gleaned from the beautiful, metamorphosing transparencies that danced across the screen to lullaby electronica, it’s that there’s a lot of fun to be had in pinning down academic clichés, and then systematically deconstructing them through the playful peeling off of their layers, until all that’s left is a blank screen.
Two other programs, “Angels” and “Non-Fiction Non-Film” used the canvas-like nature of the screen as a jumping off point to talk about the necessity of the audience in constructing cinema: the auditorium is merely an empty space until one or more persons sit in its seats, facing a screen. What happens next is only partially dependent upon the Oz type figure in the projection booth. Such was the result of Ernst Schmidt Jr.’s Hell’s Angels (1969) that presented the audience with a quite literal blank screen. Sitting uncomfortably with more than just a few turning heads towards the projector’s beam of light, we wondered what—if anything—would happen. After a small eternity of restlessness passed the ‘audience plant’ threw the first of what would be many paper planes across the auditorium. Once the interactive spectacle took flight the confusion spilled out into great bouts of laughter and a slightly competitive game of who-can-get-their-paper-plane-to-hit-the-screen-first ensued. Suddenly the paper programs, carefully placed on each of the seats before the session began, were transformed from publicity materials into art itself. A clever if somewhat child-like endeavour, this exercise reminded the audience that without them, there is nothing. Even more to the point was Schmidt Jr.’s second ‘film’ Nothing (1968), which rests upon imperceptibility, meaning that perhaps it didn’t even exist at all.
Another work dependent upon its audience for existence was William Raban’s continuous work, 2’45” (1973-2014), an endless loop of recordings of audience responses—to recordings of responses (ad infinitum)—to an audience watching a blank screen. As the sessions continued, the “responses” became louder as each audience tried to outdo the last with their chuckles, comments, whistles and other forms of aural appreciation for being a part of the process of creating cinema. Ultimately, what each of the non-films offered up was a sense of satisfaction at being ‘in on the joke’. That said, there were at least one or two titles that completely mystified me. Roland Sabatier’s Respirez (1968) seemed to me to be missing entirely, until hours later when the penny finally dropped—the cards we were handed upon entering the auditorium read, “Roland Sabatier. Breathe: The film is your breathing (infinitesimal movie, 1968) © roland sabatier, 2014”—reading the card created cinema. That our breath is the mark of our presence in the designated space made Sabatier’s art the act of transferring awareness. Josef Dabernig’s Ticket Content (2014) also confused me. Six individuals sat at a table in front of the screen and recounted the full conscript of football tickets bought between 1989 and 2010 in Italy, Poland, Germany, Belgium, Argentina and Brazil. Puzzling over the significance of sports tickets to cinema going, the only conclusion I could draw was that the record of an act of attending a spectacle is somehow cinematic.
Outside of the often baffling, but always-provocative thematic focus of the festival a number of competition films, market showcases, children’s programs and retrospective works continued the conversation. With too much to choose from (my only real complaint), this year’s star attraction for me was the profile on Mara Mattuschka. Showcasing seventeen of her works spread over three sessions split chronologically between the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, Mattuschka’s alter ego, Mimi Minus, exploded onto the screen as only a true star of the avant-garde can. Most intriguing for me was how perfectly in sync her own works seemed to be with the festival’s interrogation of intimacy. Though the audience was let off the hook in one respect—no longer the subject under the microscope—we were undoubtedly challenged in another. Her focus on gender and identity politics don’t seem at all dated to me; the act of putting on make up still feels like a painterly performance in 2014 and female masturbation is hardly any less of a taboo in the realm of mainstream cinema than it was thirty years ago. The major surprise then was her most recent work in the collection, Burning Palace (2009), perhaps best described as a heightened nightmare dance vision that takes place in a venue of Lynchian and Argento-esque proportions. Three women and two men cast silhouettes onto a red theatre curtain, their balletic movements giving the illusion of performed sex acts. From here it’s all corridors and bedrooms, partial nudity and states of psychotic undress with screams, laughter, an industrial dirge and a blend of opera and popular music serving as the score. If the festival is interested in asking us what constitutes the cinema space then Mattuschka is preoccupied with asking us about the consciousness behind the curtain.
Each session has somehow proved livelier and more stimulating than the last, giving plenty of ammunition for late night discussion at the festival bar. But, with so much of the attention put back onto the audience my greatest conversation has been—as it ought to be at a festival celebrating film—between cinema and self; an intimate exploration of the space I sit in, the history of the art and with the endless opportunity and expanse of the cinema screen.