Blindspot: film in the gallery


Can it be, after all these years, and in this century which is marked by cinema, that film is still not an accepted part of the art world? Is film too new—or is it already obsolete?  Surely the technology isn't intimidating?  Or is this discrimination by medium?


Perhaps galleries feel that film is more than adequately covered - we're a society saturated with movies. But the films I'm concerned about are almost invisible, not even falling comfortably within the mandates of the few cinematheques we have in Canada. I'm speaking of experimental or avant-garde film, personal cinema, or artists' film as this work is variously called. The work of film artists such as Gehr, Brakhage, Snow, Lowder, Beauvais, Hein, Brown, Hoolboom, Ahwesh—hardly household names even in artists' households!


Where does film stand in Canada's three leading museums (collecting galleries)? The Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) neither exhibits nor collects film. The National Gallery of Canada had a film/video assistant curator, did show film sometimes in the education theatre (video has a room adjacent to the other contemporary art galleries), has some films in their collection but it is not clear whether they are continuing to collect film or utilizing the collection they have. The curator position is now absorbed within the contemporary art section as part of the responsibility of the assistant to the curator. We will have to watch and see what happens to film now. The Art Gallery of Ontario owns a collection of about 120 films, had a film department for a short period but does no longer which toured shows and made publications, does not seem to have any clear intentions or commitment to film.


And yet, I maintain that experimental film is 'at home' in an art gallery and benefits from being seen within an art context. The histories of film and visual art frequently intersect and share critical and materialist concerns: surrealism, expressionism, abstraction, structural/materialist, semiotics, spiritual.  Issues of memory, history, identity, and representation are shared between the disciplines, as well as related questions of framing, criticality, deconstruction and intertexuality. Contemporary theory bearing on these questions has often originated in film studies and is carried over into visual arts. This is particularly the case with feminist theories of cultural production.


Cinematic structures reappear in visual art, at the levels of sequencing of units or parts, narrative coding, text/image relations. Those who grew up with film and television have been influenced, whether consciously or not. For many visual artists, media has displaced nature as environment and source of imagery. I don't think that it is hyberbolic to call the 20th century the Age of Film. How ironic that, in the main, curators of contemporary art turn a blind eye to film, unaware of artists who work exclusively or primarily in film.


Film does seem to be making a comeback in galleries, however, in the form of installations that utilize film loops—the work of Stan Douglas, for example. (I say come-back because there was a time in the late 60's that films were screened in theatrical mode in galleries; for instance, Michael Snow's films at Leo Castelli's in N.Y.C. ) I think this distinction between continuous loop installations and theatrical presentation especially of a film of some length, points to a problem with showing films in a gallery context; namely, the viewing habits of gallery visitors.


Films of any duration that require the viewer to sit and watch a work from its beginning ideally to its end, are asking something different in gallery-viewing patterns. There are a number of different possible ways of dealing with this from posting scheduled screening times to viewing-on-demand. The wishes of the artist, the resources of the institution and the will and ingenuity of both can provide solutions that work for varying situations.  (I note that in a year-long video project at the Art Gallery of Ontario, one program is a 55 minute tape.) There are no real obstacles to film being a part of the contemporary art mandate of a gallery. Yet, the sense of obligation and the will of directors and curators to make it so does not seem to be there. Why?


Curators are unfamiliar with film and filmmakers. In art schools and university art departments, film is not included. Often there are separate film departments (where experimental film is marginal at best) and the history of cinema is the history of the American industry or National Cinemas. Hence future curators and art gallery directors are not familiar with film art and artists and see film as a separate field. But the mainstream narrative film industry is not the cinema of which I speak and whose many wonderfully rich expressions should be available to those interested in seeing art.


The acquisition of films by collecting institutions needs to be occurring with regularity and attention. Nowhere is experimental film being collected—what will happen to its history, and how does this affect its continued existence and strength? There are many great film artworks, which deserve to be collected and exhibited, valued and valorized alongside contemporary art in other media—diverse films made with passion, integrity, intelligence.


May I add in passing that art magazines need not wait for experimental film to be embraced by galleries before they review film screenings and feature articles on film artists!  I call upon you directors, curators, writers, editors all to rectify this unnecessary oversight, and to do it now. Put on your Nikes. Be first; lead the way!




(This article written in 1998 has not been published)



Richard Rhodes, Editor

Canadian Art Magazine

70 the Esplanade 2nd floor

Toronto M5E 1R2




March 26, 1999


Dear Richard Rhodes,


Enclosed please find a submission on the subject of artists' film which I hope you will find a place for in Canadian Art magazine. If you don't see it as an article (I can expand on it if need be), then please receive it as a letter-to-the-editor.


Thank you for your consideration and I await your reply.





Barbara Sternberg

1641 Bathurst St. #102

Toronto, Ont. M5p 3J6

(416) 489-8406