Film Art Phenomena

Nicky Hamlyn,
Film Art Phenomena.
London, British Film Institute, 2003.
ISBN: 0851709729
UK£16.99 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by BFI publishing)

Nicky Hamlyn’s aptly named Film Art Phenomena is a timely and welcome examination of the aesthetic, historical and technical complexities of avant-garde or experimental cinema of the last century. Indeed, Hamlyn’s informative and cogently argued book looks at that other practice, in contrast to mainstream commercial cinema, that includes “artists’ films” as opposed to art cinema. Hamlyn, who himself is a well known practitioner in the context of British experimental cinema, investigates his subject from a comprehensive and informative perspective and writes in a clear and accessible language without resorting to a high level of academic and technical language. Hamlyn’s book provides a substantial study of British avant-garde or experimental film and video, but not exclusively so, as it encompasses seminal examples from relevant American, Canadian and European traditions as well. It also includes incisive commentary on important figures like the late Stan Brakhage, Michael Snow, Tony Conrad, Paul Sharits, Arnulf Rainer, and Andy Warhol, amongst others.

Hamlyn’s cross-disciplinary approach to artists’ film and video emphasises those experimental traditions that heavily favour painting and sculpture. In this sense, Film Art Phenomena is a significant publication as it dissects the broad impact of these two major art forms on the concerns and evolution of experimental cinema, video and digital media. The book is important because not only is Hamlyn culturally and personally familiar with his subject but he examines the more familiar names of these particular film and video traditions as well as the more recent younger artists like Karen Mirza, Brad Butler, Jennifer Nightingale, and Colin Crockett, amongst many others.

Another important feature of Film Art Phenomena is Hamlyn’s structuring of his material in a clear, intelligent and criss-crossing manner so that major categories under discussion connect many different works and film and video artists from framing to digital media, space to installations, point of view to sound. Indeed, arguably, Hamlyn’s book is cleverly structured around three major areas of investigation: media, the apparatus and aesthetics. And these three major categories are further subdivided into other connecting categories that fairly exhaustively cover all the far-ranging artists, ideas, histories and techniques that make up the ongoing mutating landscape of artists’ film and video. Each chapter is illustrated with numerous examples to illustrate the author’s own experiences and critical thinking as a major filmmaker about the concept under discussion. And yet despite the categorisation of Hamlyn’s material, there is some overlap between chapters because of the author’s discursive style of writing.

By no means should it be construed that Film Art Phenomena is meant to be an exhaustive compendium delineating the various genres and traditions of experimental film and video. On the contrary, Hamlyn only uses the examples throughout his book that are reflexive and allow an interrogation of film and video culture. Foremost in Hamlyn’s selection criteria for including certain works or not is his overall interest in seeing how far the media themselves go in questioning the adequacy and desirability of Western representation.

Informing the book’s conceptual architecture is Hamlyn’s basic ambivalence towards mainstream cinema of narrative and spectacle and his well-informed enthusiasm for art and film. This means that he embraces the kind of filmmaking that italicises the nature of the apparatus and medium in order to engender in the spectator a critical state of mind concerning the ideological fictions of art, culture, media and spectatorship.

This means that Hamlyn looks at those traditions of avant-garde cinema, video and new media that deconstruct and reimagine what film images are, construct new machines, and new expanded modes of exhibition, installation and performance. Hamlyn was a painting student who became interested in mixed-media experimentation, film installations and sculpture, thanks to influential teachers like Ron Haseldon, Peter Gidal, Malcolm Le Grice and Mary Kelley, amongst others. He was also involved with the London Filmmaker’s Co-operative and its magazine Undercut which put him in touch with crucial debates about the politics of form and the radical modes of film-making that oppose mainstream cinema.

Both Gidal and Le Grice have been specifically influential on Hamlyn’s own film practice through their criticism of the institutional mode of academic film studies. Hamlyn’s propensity to return to the work of the 1970s in the book reflects his encounter with such seminal figures like Gidal and Le Grice who belong to the sceptical tradition of structural materialist cinema. From them Hamlyn has acquired a self-reflexive questioning stance towards mainstream film ideology which continues today vis-à-vis the more utopian claims and euphoria that (lamentably still in certain circles) surround digital media and virtual reality.

Hamlyn’s own anxiety about “old” and “new” media, specifically about the fate of 16mm film in contrast to the increasing everyday popularity of video, does colour his ideas about this particular issue. Further, because Hamlyn focuses on the overriding issues of form and structure throughout Film Art Phenomena, he is reflecting his own honest anxieties and ambivalence as a film-maker trying to see how best to deal with the proliferating digital systems of our technoculture. Hamlyn’s own ideas about these important issues facing anyone who wishes to work as a film and/or video artist are significant in that they denote his own ongoing belief that one has to create, to use Jean-Luc Godard’s phrase, “from zero”, that is one needs to select their own forms and structures as image-makers.

Hamlyn’s focus on the relative merits of film, video and digital media is, therefore, a significant one : his comments on such important British exemplars like the pioneering video artist David Hall, David Larcher (whose multifaceted works attract such a strong following in France and Germany besides England), Peter Gidal, Malcolm Le Grice, and Patrick Keiller, amongst others, are highly informative and perceptive because they underline the characteristic aesthetic, cultural and technological concerns and tensions informing British artists’ film, video and new media over the last three decades.

Although Hamlyn includes the work of video artists in Film Art Phenomena, it is only a selective range of examples that he uses. Hamlyn is critical of the more recent naïve post-modern excesses of the international art world where certain film and video “gallery” artists have been acclaimed for their installations and large scale video projections. He is also critical of such artists as Douglas Gordon, Mark Lewis, Steve McQueen, and others, whose own gallery works do not display a self-reflexive critique of the aesthetic and ideological effects of their own works and the media they use. On the other hand, Hamlyn, true to his own structural, generic and traditional concerns, cites the gallery work of some earlier “Co-op” filmmakers like Steve Farrer and Anthony McCall, and the examples of the Americans Robert Morris and Richard Serra, who all were concerned in their art with the site-specific forms, problematics and workings of their medium.

Hamlyn’s book is handsomely illustrated with numerous colour and black and white illustrations and is, in a fundamental sense, a much needed critical intervention in the current debates about the various forms of film- and video-making that radically diverge from today’s mainstream media culture. It is a lucidly argued and perceptive book that sheds light on certain traditions of the British avant-garde film and video and, in so doing, also functions as an immensely resourceful teaching aid on experimental cinema, film and digital media as well.

John Conomos.
University of Technology, Sydney.

Created on: Monday, 6 December 2004 | Last Updated: 6-Dec-04

About the Author

John Conomos

About the Author

John Conomos

John Conomos lectures in film and media studies at the Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney. He is a media artist, critic and writer. He has recently completed a Power Institute research residency at the Cite in Paris. He has also co-edited a new anthology, with Brad Buckley, titled Rethinking the Contemporary Art School: The Artist, The PhD and the Academy (Halifax, The Press of Nova Scotia School of Art and Design, 2009).View all posts by John Conomos →