Lights, Camera, Aktion!

Erika Balsom on “Filmaktion: Expanded Cinema and Film Performance”

Malcolm Le Grice, Horror Film 2, 1972. Performance view, Raven Row, London, March 4, 2017. Photo: Mark Blower.

VISITORS DRIFTED IN AND OUT of London’s Raven Row all weekend, lying on the floor, sitting on the stairs, waiting out an unexpected power cut, chatting and mixing gin and tonics in the interval (with lemon, of course). The convivial occasion was a weekend devoted to restaging a selection of expanded cinema works by the Filmaktion group, widely recognized as central to the history of artists’ film practice in Britain yet rarely seen due to the difficulty of orchestrating their display.

Curated by Mark Webber, the program formed part of Raven Row’s ongoing episodic exhibition “This Way Out of England: Gallery House in Retrospect.” Open only on weekends from February 9 to March 26, in a different iteration each time, the show draws attention to and reactivates the ethos of Gallery House, an influential but short-lived venue for experimental, interdisciplinary art. In 1972, the German Institute in South Kensington (now the Goethe-Institut) took over the townhouse adjacent to its own with plans for expansion. Gallerist Sigi Krauss was recruited to organize an exhibition program in the empty space prior to the beginning of construction—an undertaking that lasted only until the summer of 1973. A decidedly risk-taking, noncommercial space, Gallery House provided support for emerging artists’ film practices, particularly those that pushed beyond the confines of the movie theater to interrogate the apparatus and its relation to the viewer in an expanded context.

In March 1973, the space hosted a group of filmmakers who would soon assume the name Filmaktion. Eager to move their 16-mm projectors out of soundproof booths and into the proximity of the audience, this loosely affiliated group consisted of core members Gill Eatherley, Malcolm Le Grice, Annabel Nicolson, and William Raban. At Raven Row, all but Nicholson were on hand to present their own works and, when needed, collaborate in the staging of others’. Using multiple projectors and often involving the presence of the filmmaker’s own body, the pieces on view tended to emphasize the liveness of the encounter between viewer and screen, extricating the moving image from an economy of the multiple to insist on its status as a performing art.

William Raban, Take Measure, 1972. Performance view, Raven Row, London, March 4, 2017. Photo: Mark Blower.

A statement on a leaflet produced for the June 1973 Filmaktion week at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool captures the group’s anti-illusionist interests: “From a broad base of using film as film, materially and formally, a concern has developed to treat the projection situation as an immediate reality in time and space.” Each artist’s practice explores this in its own way. Le Grice, for instance, shows a keen fascination with the nonnarrative attractions of early cinema: In Horror Film 2 (1972), shown publicly for the first time since the 1970s, he combines anaglyph 3-D, shadow play, and the rear projection of silent horror films in a spectacular dissection of cinema’s basic principles. Eatherley, meanwhile, often explores the relation between an object—chairs in Chair Installation (1972), the artist’s body as she holds a broom in Aperture Sweep (1973)—as it is at once represented on-screen and materially present in the room. Nicolson’s single-screen shorts Shapes (1970) and Frames (1973) testify to the centrality of contact printing to much of the Filmaktion work. And Raban, in now-legendary interventions such as 2'45'' (1973), as well as lesser-known works such as Diagonal (1973) and Surface Tension (1974–76), turns his attention to the limits of the frame, destabilizing the naturalness of the single rectangle.

The Filmaktion weekend was above all a tremendous opportunity to encounter hard-to-see classics—and for free, no less, as they were at Gallery House. But bringing the group of artists together and presenting their work within the context of an engagement with a historical exhibition space adds significantly to the importance of this event. The promise of a history of exhibitions is to move away from narratives of artistic production founded in the agency of the lone individual. Too often, this commitment is betrayed, as a history of artists gives way not to a network of affiliation but to a history of star curators. “This Way Out of England”—and in particular Webber’s Filmaktion weekend, with its emphasis on the liveness of artworks and friendships alike—offers a glimpse of what the history of exhibitions can be when it refuses to devolve into a history of curators. The event made a case for the importance of considering the networks of support, whether interpersonal or institutional, that undergird artistic practice. The return to Gallery House speaks to the special power of those off-kilter, idiosyncratic spaces that operate outside the norm, producing an impact out of proportion with their size. As Raven Row prepares to close its doors to the public for an unspecified period, it’s something worth remembering.

“Filmaktion: Expanded Cinema and Film Performance” ran March 4 and 5 at London’s Raven Row as part of the exhibition “This Way Out of England: Gallery House in Retrospect” (through March 26).