Asking this question of a film that was shot in 1980 in the remote Australian Aboriginal community of Borroloola is part of a broader set of questions about technique and form (politics and aesthetics) for arts practitioners. What is an experiment for the arts, as opposed to the sciences? Is it a process of composing a piece (of writing, film, or music) within a repetitive cycle of substitution and failure until something surprising happens? That quasi-scientific model is certainly an interesting one to work with. But how is the model constituted? To experiment in that scientific sense you need a lab, time, and colleagues: the lab is for assembling the materials in a controllable environment; time is for unfolding the process of repeated testing and failure; and colleagues are for referral, peer review and institution building.
I want to make a case that it is not so different for the humanist, the practitioner who is interested in changing the way people think and feel about public issues. But the experiment, in the humanities and creative arts, has been conceived of somewhat differently. In writing and art workshops and film co-ops, experiment (when it is defined, and it rarely is) usually takes the form of a gesture towards liberation from convention. For example, according to Comrade Time and Comrade Art by Vladimir Turbin in 1961, “the greatness of Picasso and Mayakovsky consists in their ingenious refashioning of conventions, their capacity to dream up cultural forms that respond to altered psychic conditions and technological possibilities”. 1
The experimental was thus also an avant-garde, a term that encompasses both political and aesthetic movement within a revolutionary paradigm. This vanguardism was expressed much more strongly by a group of historians influenced by mai ‘68 and writing in 1991. Daniel S Milo and his friends in Paris constituted a working group in “experimental history”, publishing a volume of essays entitled Alter Histoire. 2 Their obsession was to:
liberate the imagination of the historian, admire the force of the possible, intervene in order to spread disorder. This libertarian attitude carried with it certain polemics: a refusal of history as reenactment and the dogma of the opacity of the past, and a distrust of systems of description and explanation. 3
Their method? The practice of an experimental history which would systematically defamiliarise and displace historical objects.
I cannot trace the whole history of experimental film here, which could be said to begin, at least iconically, with Un chien andalou (1929) and continue right through Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein and into the post-war American avant-garde, to mention only a few familiar, canonical milestones. This filmic experimentalism not only developed in parallel with similar modernist experiments in literature and the visual arts, but also with the idea of science as progress. Film was a technologically innovative medium and initially denigrated by the aesthetic mainstream. Yet it also sat unproblematically with scientific experimentalism and its own self-confident progressivism. I would like to hold for a moment this image of a self-confident Euro-centric modernism, unified and vanguardist, enlightening the rest of the world as it moved forward. I want to suggest that this version of an experimental modernism must take pause as it encountered, and continues to encounter, its colonial others. Their practices, technologies and forms of knowledge (translated and known through ethnography) were and are able to count on the frontier of the modern, as I have argued elsewhere. 4
Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera (1929) was experimental in that it made explicit the process of creation within the technical constraints (man, camera, various modes of montage, angles – the whole gamut), as opposed to the camera being a mere vehicle for some more conventional proscenium view of an unfolding narrative drama. In other words, while the larger tradition swears allegiance to verisimilitude, its offshoot, the experimental tradition, diminishes the importance of illusion and highlights the reality of the work itself: its materials, tools and processes.
How would Alessandro Cavadini situate himself within this history of experimental film? Within the context that produced 1980s filmmakers like Barbara Hammer, Su Friedrich, Tracey Moffatt, Sadie Benning, Moira Sullian and Isaac Julien – working to resist familiar narratives as they opened up spaces for identities that were previously inexpressible within an overarching white, patriarchal and heteronormative gaze? This remains an open question.
Suffice to say that, in the late 1970s, an Italian filmmaker (Cavadini), in partnership with an Australian (Carolyn Strachan), made a film called Two Laws which was about the clash of cultures in a remote community called Borroloola in the Northern Territory. The film was a success (according to its makers) in Aboriginal communities agitating for land rights. This was at a time when the Top End and the Kimberley, where the film toured around the communities, were still very much frontier societies, and the Land Councils were just being born – for instance, the Kimberley Land Council started in Broome in a very small way in 1978.
Down south in the cities, the film was a critical success, while indigenous issues there were far from mainstream. Again, a landmark in the representation of Blackfellas in film was 1978, when Fred Schepisi’s film of The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith was released. Any alternative to the three great ways Indigenous issues were discursively posed (the Racist, the Romantic and the Anthropological) presented as ‘difficult’ and previously unheard, thus posing something of an ‘essay’ in understanding, a test of public acceptance. And indeed it was hard to get the general public to view Two Laws; it was perceived as too long-winded and unconventional.
Meaghan Morris was a film critic for the Financial Review newspaper at the time, and no doubt aware of the difficult nature of the text. She wrote about it in this way:
As a means of contesting the imposition of white laws of land ownership, social organisation and values, and of history-telling, Two Laws also contests the laws of white cinema – our cherished, but arbitrary, conventions about focus, editing, perspective and pace.
According to these conventions, good focus is sharp, hard-edged and clear; a proper perspective is the illusions one inherited from renaissance painting; and a decent editing job whips us back and forth between individual characters …
Two Laws creates a softly rounded world in which the borders between people, objects and landscape are more fluidly defined, and in which “reality” seems to stream in from the edge of the image, rather than being displayed for us in flat little snippets on screen. 5
So how did the filmmakers achieve this “‘reality’ [that] seems to stream in from the edge of the image”? It was a case of the use of a wide angle lens – which this film made famous, at least in Australia. The filmmaking duo came to the remote community equipped with a range of lenses, just in case. They were shooting on 16mm, took some experimental footage on different lenses, and sent the film away for processing. When it came back, they consulted with their partners in the community. As you can imagine, this was a long process (over a number of months), as what was being tested was also the relationship of the film team (basically just Cavadini and Strachan) with the various clans of Yanyuwa people. They had to be integrated into this community, at least far as people to be trusted with disseminating their stories.
Let me take that iconic wide angle as my example. The Yanyuwa mob did not like the way the standard lens cuts their heads off; they wanted the whole body. And they wanted the person speaking to be seen in connection, co-present with their own kin also in co-production of the stories. And they wanted to be seen with their sacred country as co-present rather than as background landscape. It thus became clear that there were a whole set of rules and conventions operating for them – thus making the film a useful illustration of laws of kinship and the ownership and control of stories as they are produced and made public collectively.
So, while one is tempted to align the politics of the film with a type of experimentalism, it is not a politics or an experimentalism of breaking free. It is a matter of a specific technique (the wide angle lens) that moves from one place to another and then aligns itself with a new set of rules. It finds new partners, and something is invented that corresponds – to the extent that it is successful – to Morris’ interesting phrase about a “‘reality’ [that] seems to stream in from the edge of the image”.
Experimental cinema, then, would be making explicit the “ingredients” or elements one is constrained to use within the artificial environment of the laboratory. I don’t know if Strachan and Cavadini thought they were in a somewhat more natural environment out there in the bush; but I do want to stress that it was an environment where the human actors, who thought they were in control, were striving to control various other actors. And, as in any laboratory, one never quite knows which actor will produce the surprise. The Yanyuwa, for instance, would have been (I imagine, like so many of their countrymen over the years) working to insist that various Dreaming ancestors be taken seriously as actors in the unfolding set of stories to be filmed.
The wide angle lens was one actor doing remarkable work. And so, too, were the viewing public. This is where, in a post-colonial or post-colonising situation for experiments with film, one of the actors becomes the virtual or implied public. I suggested at the beginning that the humanist is the practitioner who is interested in changing the way people think and feel about public issues. Bruno Latour (whose philosophy I am trying to adapt to the humanities) joins the dots for me here, linking the constitution of the public to an experiment:
I think we have become interested in pragmatism again because “the public” continues to be a problem. “The public” is not what is meant simply by a certain definition of the common good. If you speak about it in terms of a common good, then you have to find the experiment that makes it work. Where is the experiment that proves that you are right? If you decide you can define what is good for Americans or good for architects, for instance, where is the proof? Prove it! Find the protocol of the demonstration. Decode this protocol. Engage politics, not in the sense of feeling good and having the right set of political positions and so on, but around the protocol of debriefing the collective experiment. 6
Latour himself has debriefed the collective experiment that is European modernism, suggesting that not only have “we never been modern”, but that modernism itself should be “recalled” like a defective product in order to reconstruct it in the light of new environments and conditions. 7 It might thus be a good idea to review modernism in order to catalogue its failures, treating its projects as experiments that were, in fact, destined in some way to fail.
Such an approach works against the arrogance of vanguardism in both politics and aesthetics. Because, when we think that we are leading the way in breaking away from convention, we are in the same position as explorers, equipped with know-how and technology, who imagine they are passing the frontier of civilisation into a void. But all one is doing (I have argued) is to transport a technique from one context into another where it encounters a new set of rules. That new context is a new public or, in the case of Two Laws, two publics, whose viewing conventions caused them to understand the wide angle lens differently, and then to begin to understand each others’ societies differently. But because it was an experimental process, neither would have seen the effects of the lens as ‘just right’. The effects succeeded or failed just enough to allow both publics to be encompassed within that somewhat more expansive frame.
- Matthew Jesse Jackson, The Experimental Group: Ilya Kabakov, Moscow Conceptualism, Soviet Avant-gardes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2010), p. 36. ↩
- Daniel S. Milo and Alain Boureau, eds., Alter Histoire: Essais d’histoire experimentale (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1991). The manifesto essay by Milo is called “Pour une histoire expérimentale, ou le gai savoir”, pp. 9-55. ↩
- Milo and Boureau, Alter Histoire, Back cover. ↩
- Stephen Muecke, Ancient & Modern: Time, Culture and Indigenous Philosophy (Kensington: University of NSW Press, 2004). ↩
- Meaghan Morris, “Two Laws: An Unquiet Realm of the Aboriginal Struggle”, Financial Review, April 30th 1982; reproduced in Two Laws DVD booklet, Facets: Cine-Notes, 2007, pp. 22-3. ↩
- “Interview with Bruno Latour: Decoding the Collective Experiment”, by María J. Prieto and Elise S. Youn http://agglutinations.com/archives/000040.html ↩
- Bruno Latour, trans. S. Muecke, “The Recall of Modernity: Anthropological Approaches”, Cultural Studies Review, Volume 13 Issue 1, pp. 11-30. ↩