Screening: Experimental moving image works at IMMA

‘Unlikely Correspondence’ – IMMA Screening & Talk / Irish Artist Experimental Film – Saturday 16 September 2017 / IMMA

‘In conjunction with the exhibition Vivienne Dick, 93% STARDUST at IMMA, Alice Butler, film programmer and co-curator of AEMI, presents a talk and screening of artist and experimental moving image works by contemporary Irish artists who are foregrounding new ways to work independently, redefining the limits and potentials of cinema across a range of formats. Butler’s talk will refer to and explore the history and development of artist moving image practice in Ireland.’

I thought I would jot down my thoughts around an epiphany I had recently about my direction as a moving image maker. I have been voraciously reading books and watching films by and about many experimental filmmakers and video artists (most notably Jonas Mekas, Vivienne Dick & Doug Aitken). It has been wonderful to discover so much amazing work by so many moving image practitioners from around the world, none of whom I had heard about before starting this course. Over the summer, for instance, reading through Michael Rush’s Video Art (2003) I discovered a whole world of moving image practice that was so powerful and stimulating I still can’t stop looking back at the book for another fix of art.

Last month my wife and I went to a screening and talk about contemporary Irish experimental film artists. Fractured, confused and non-the-wiser; frustrated; disappointed; in free-fall…all of the above. I just couldn’t connect with the films. They weren’t easy, nor were they particularly enjoyable. And perhaps that’s the point. Art isn’t meant to be easy. Nor does it have to be likeable in order to get something out of it that’s of value in your own life and work. Anyway, I’ve had time to think and let the dust settle for a while, so here are a few thoughts on where I think I may be heading in my own work as a moving image practitioner.

It was strange and unexpected, but the strongest feeling that came over me that evening as I came away from the event at the Irish Museum for Modern Art was knowing that my own calling as a moving image practitioner was very clearly heading towards that of making narrative films. What form these narrative films will take is unknown. But one thing is for sure, they will capture a story. I love people. And I love the way in which the stories we tell can bring people to life. Whatever the narrative form. Fact or fiction. I simply love experiencing a story unfold on screen. Not those simple, poorly thought out stories masquerading as narrative films. But the well wrought works of art that feed the imagination and mind with images and ideas that resonate in some way long after the film has finished. The type of films that engage me; that demand I contribute something of myself in return. If you know what I mean.

I like the ideas Alice Butler talked about – the correspondences between historical reality and fiction, and between art and nature, and the notion of ‘the talk’ and the ‘role of the expert’ in artistic expression. But, even now, a few weeks on from the screening, I still feel frustrated and disappointed in the works I saw that evening. Even at an abstract level, I couldn’t connect with them in the same way I could a painting by Rothko or Klee, for example. For In which the artist ‘speaks’; the viewer ‘replies’.

That disappointment has nothing to do with the works themselves. They were works of video art; well made. The frustration and disappointment was very much within myself, in my own personal response to those works; or, more accurately, my surprising lack of response to them. But that’s not the point here. What really fascinated (and surprised!) me during the event was the clarity, the absolute clarity, with which I saw myself as a moving image maker, wide awake and craving; moving towards narrative form.


Michael Rush (2007) Video Art London: Thames & Hudson

Selections from Film Culture magazine (1955-1996)

Following on from my first look into the work of Jonas Mekas, I went in search of further references to Film Culture, the New York based magazine founded in 1954 by Jonas and Adolfas Mekas. Film Culture magazine evolved into the primary voice of independent and avant-garde cinema, publishing a total of 79 issues between the years 1955 – 1996.

Most of the magazine’s writers shared a belief in the poetic and ‘painterly possibilities’ of the film medium, defining cinema in lyrical or abstract terms rather than in terms of the narrative form of mainstream cinema.

I discovered twenty three articles from Film Culture magazine available on UbuWeb, a non-profit online resource of all things avant-garde.

Selections from Film Culture magazine (1955-1996)

The selection includes articles on experimental film, interviews with avant-garde filmmakers, transcripts and reports on symposiums, personal reflections, and a statement by Luis Buñuel.


Selections from Film Culture magazine At: (Accessed on 6 April 2017)

Experimental filmakers in mainstream cinema - some notable examples

Experimental film or avant-garde cinema is a mode of filmmaking that re-evaluates cinematic conventions and explores non-narrative forms and alternatives to traditional narratives or methods of working in filmmaking. Many experimental films relate to arts in other disciplines, such as painting, literature, poetry and dance.

An experimental film is generally characterised by:

  • the absence of a linear narrative
  • the use of abstracting techniques
  • the use of non-diegetic sound
  • the use of a non-narrative, impressionistic, poetic approach to structure

with the goal of drawing the viewer into a more active and thoughtful relationship with the film.

Many experimental filmmakers have also made feature films.

Some notable examples include Lars von TrierNikos NikolaidisJean-Luc GodardSteven SoderberghKathryn BigelowAndy WarholPeter GreenawayDerek JarmanJean CocteauSally PotterDavid Lynch, Jørgen LethPatrick BokanowskiPier Paolo PasoliniSimone Rapisarda Casanova and Luis Buñuel.

However, the extent to which these filmmakers take on mainstream commercial aesthetics appears to differ widely in their work.

Black Mirror (2011), Doug Aitken

I have been looking at Doug Aitken’s short film ‘Black Mirror’ and it’s like someone has just opened the faucet to my imagination. It’s an amazing piece of filmmaking. I’m watching it thinking ‘That’s It! That’s It!’ His use of sound, picture, voice, his approach to narrative form, it’s all there, just what I’ve been looking for. It’s a well-wrought example of a short film that experiments with narrative form in a way that I connected with on first watching. I was completely entranced by his use of character and setting, the way in which he juxtaposes images, and the way in which he disrupts the narrative flow.






‘LIFE in the 21st century can feel like an infinite loop of security checkpoints, rolling luggage and brief electronic exchanges, at least to a constant traveler like the artist Doug Aitken, whose latest work, a video installation called “Black Mirror,” explores the placelessness and alienation of people in nonstop motion.’ (New York Times)

It’s the type of approach I would like to try to adopt in my own filmmaking. But I’ll need to study 'Black Mirror' in much more detail to find out what Aitken is doing, how and why. Only then will I be able to develop my own ideas in a meaningful way that is both challenging and inspiring.

Last night I was looking at Jonas Mekas’ films. Amazing! Today I was looking at Doug Aitken’s Black Mirror. Amazing! A whole new way of looking at the moving image has opened up in front of me.


Images: Stills from Black Mirror, 2011 © Doug Aitken


Black Mirror (2011) Doug Aitken [YouTube website] (Accessed on 2 April 2017)

Spears, D. (2011) ‘Can You Hear Me Now?’ In: The New York Times [online] At: (Accessed on 2 April 2017)

Jonas Mekas

Fig. 1.

“When one writes diaries, it’s a retrospective process: you sit down, you look back at your day, and you write it all down. To keep a film (camera) diary, is to react (with your camera) immediately, now, this instant: either you get it now, or you don’t get it at all.” Jonas Mekas

Born in Lithuania in 1922, Janos Mekas left home during the Soviet invasion in 1940. He and his brother were confined in a labour camp in Germany. They were brought to the United States in 1949 by the UN Refugee Organisation.

After arriving in New York, Janos became involved in the avant-garde art scene. He frequented Amos Vogel’s Cinema 16. Then arranged his own screenings and began making his own films. His early films include Guns of the Trees (1961) and The Brig (1963), which won Grand Prizes at the Parretta Therme and Venice Film Festivals respectively. It was during the 1960s and 70s that he developed his signature diary style in films such as Walden (1969), Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972) and Lost Lost Lost (1976).

During the 1950s he founded the journal Film Culture, which became the voice for American avant-garde cinema. He also ran the influential ‘Movie Journal’ column for Village Voice and established institutions such as the Film-Makers Cooperative and Anthology Film Archives.

Diaristic Film

He began making videos in the late 1980s. His 365-Day Project, in which he recorded a video every single day of his life for a year, was made in 2007. Talking about his 365-Day Project in an interview with Natasha Kurchanova in Studio International, Mekas says ‘I have a need to film small, almost invisible daily moments.’ These films, each of between 4 and 10 minutes long, present small, personal moments about his life and the life of his friends.  As we watch these short diaristic films, we see what he sees while he is filming, we see the way his eye moves and the way his body moves with the camera, we see the details upon which he focuses.

Mekas used a small Sony video camera to make these films. Talking about his filming and editing processes, he says: ‘When I film, I never know how a particular situation will end. So, I just go along with it, follow it with my camera, and permit this flow. […] I do almost all of my editing during the filming. My filming is like when one paints: all decisions of hand or brush movements are decided during the process of painting. […] For me, if I failed to get the essence of the moment during the filming, no amount of editing is going to get it.’

Figs 2 to 4

With his films, Jonas has given us a direct personal response to the world, keeping the direct contact between his camera and the moment preserved.” Martin Scorsese

What makes Janos Mekas such a fascinating filmmaker for me is his search for the essence of a moment as it happens, and the approach to filming and editing he adopts in achieving this goal. What’s interesting in his approach is that there is no obvious planning or design within his diaristic films in a conventional sense. Rather than having an idea of where a film will go, he just starts and sees where it leads him. I looked at three of his films, I Leave Chelsea Hotel (2009), A Walk (1990) and As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000). All the three were fascinating examples of his diaristic style. Together, they embody what Martin Scorsese calls ‘a direct personal response to the world’. Yet, individually, they are quite different from each other in their responses to the moments that are captured and ‘preserved’.

One film that stood out for me, in terms of Mekas just starting and seeing where it leads him, is A Walk (1990). A Walk is exactly that, a record of a walk Mekas made in Soho, New York. It is also his first attempt at creating a single-shot film. Completely unrehearsed and unedited, the film captures an hour long walk in the rain he made starting from Wooster Street, where he was living at the time. Accompanying the film is an equally unrehearsed and unedited monologue, in which he shares musings, recollections and poetry in response to the ambience of the streets through which he passes. Whatever comes to his mind as he walks. What fascinated me most about this film is the unrehearsed, unedited, meandering nature of the film in both picture and sound. The way in which he has captured a moment in time as it happened. A moment in time that was not predicted and that will never be seen in that way again.

I Leave Chelsea Hotel (2009) is a wonderfully poetic piece of filmmaking. Filmed in 1967, in black & white, it shows Jonas Mekas leaving Chelsea Hotel and walking towards 7th Avenue. While watching the opening shot, we are led to believe that this is a simple record of him stepping out of the hotel with a stack of journals under one arm and a duffel back slung over the opposite shoulder and walking along the street. In actual fact, it is a sequence of shots repeating the same event; Mekas leaving Chelsea Hotel. Mekas manipulates time, presenting us with the same ‘event’ several times, with minor variations between. Yet, as the picture builds, it still feels fresh and unrehearsed. It’s like a memory recurring in thought, over and over. Which maybe, in a way, it is, as it was edited 40 years after being filmed.

Jonas Mekas is a fascinating and very endearing filmmaker, whose work I have quickly grown to admire. Having never heard of him or his work before, I am keen discover more about the way in which he and his films work.


Bogdanovich, P. (2015) ‘Jonas Mekas’ In: Interview Magazine [online] At: [Accessed on 1 April 2017]

Kurchanova, N. (2015) ‘Jonas Mekas: I have a need to film small, almost invisible daily moments’ In: Studio International [online] At: [Accessed on 1 April 2017]

A Walk (1990) Jonas Mekas (Accessed on 1 April 2017)

As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty – Paradise (2000) Jonas Mekas (Accessed on 1 April 2017)

I Leave Chelsea Hotel (2009) Jonas Mekas (Accessed on 1 April 2017)


List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Jonas Mekas in New York (2015) Craig McDean, Interview Magazine, October 27, 2015

Figure 2. As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000)

Figure 3. I Leave Chelsea Hotel,(2009)

Figure 4. A Walk (1990)

Experimental film

“You can make an experimental film through improvisation, or a mathematical plan, or just letting nature take its course.”

Bordwell & Thompson (2007)

In their book Film Art: An Introduction, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson identify two main types of experimental film:

  1. films based on abstract form
  2. films based on associational form


Abstract Form

It is possible to organise a film around colours, shapes, sizes and movement in the images. These visual qualities within a film can be organised through an abstract pattern of theme and variations: a motif is introduced, followed by a series of different versions of that motif, often with such extreme differences that the original motif becomes difficult to recognise.

Designing Form in an Abstract Film

Bordwell & Thompson (2017) outline five ways in which the form of an abstract film can be designed:

  • An introductory section showing the kinds of relationships the film uses as its basic material.
  • Other segments go on to present similar kinds of relationships, but with changes. The changes may be slight, but soon differ sharply from the introductory material.
  • Bigger contrasts emerge; sudden variations help the viewer sense when a new segment has started.
  • Similarities and differences won’t be random if the film’s formal organisation has been created with care.
  • Some underlying principles run through the film.

(Film Art, p. 372)

” Experimental filmmakers often start by photographing real objects. But the filmmakers then juxtapose the images to emphasise relations of shape, colour, movement, and so on” (Film Art, p. 372).

The viewer of an abstract film is forced to use their senses in an unusual way. They don’t need to use their eyes for practical purposes. Rather, the abstract within the film becomes interesting for its own sake. The viewer becomes more aware of pattern within an abstract film.


Associational Form

An alternative experimental approach is associational form, in which a film is organised around the assembly of images and ideas that may not have any logical connection. In the same way as poetry uses language and metaphor to convey meaning, associational form in film uses patterns of imagery and sound to suggest associations and connections that bind the ideas and emotions within the film together.

Basic Principles of Associational Form

Bordwell & Thompson (2017) suggest the following principles operate within a film designed around associational form:

  • Images are gathered into distinct sections (a principle also found in abstract form).
  • The film creates variations from part to part; for example: changes in tempo – a fast section followed by a slow one.
  • Use of repeated motifs to reinforce associations.
  • Associational form “strongly invites interpretation, the assigning of general meanings to the film” whereby the viewer draws conclusions based on their own interpretation.

(Film Art, p. 379)

Associational form generally avoids explicit statement. Filmmaker’s using this form tend to create films composed of a series of unusual and striking combinations of images, leaving the viewer to use their imagination to find meaning within the film.

Abstract and associational forms are fascinating approaches to filmmaking. They are not something I was familiar with until now. The idea of creating films out an abstract pattern of theme and variation or disrupting a narrative in such a way that the viewer is left to draw their own interpretation of the film has opening up a whole new visual landscape for me.



Bordwell, David, & Thompson, Kristin (2017) Film Art: An Introduction, 11th edition. New York: McGraw Hill