Luis Recoder and Sandra Gibson present a performance on January 19, 2011, as part of 'Radical Light'-related programming at Pacific Film Archive.

Radical Light: 'A Haven for Radical Art and Experimental Film and Video'

Steve Anker November 19, 2010

This introductory essay is excerpted from Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000, (Berkeley: University of California Press and The Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2010).  Copyright (c) 2010 by the Regents of the University of California.

Every metropolitan area has its own geographic character and cultural history. During the fifty-five years that are the primary focus of this book, several American cities have supported flourishing experimental, or avant-garde, film and video communities. I’ve had the pleasure of curating and writing about avant-garde film in four of these cities since 1972, making a horizontal circuit starting with the East Coast, from New York City to Boston, in the seventies, then crossing the continent to San Francisco in the eighties and nineties and on to Los Angeles in 2002. Regardless of the place or era, this kind of cinema is usually overlooked or dismissed by the larger culture, yet each city has sustained a vibrant enclave of experimental moving-image artists, young and old, and produced a spirited, passionate audience when given the chance.  

New York City, a tough and exciting environment, remains an international hub for experimental cinema and has inspired several generations of ambitious artists as well as numerous film theaters and workshops started by artists and devotees. Boston contains one of the most tenacious and iconoclastic subcultures of avant-garde, underground filmmakers, despite the dominating forces of tradition-bound New England and the city’s powerful large universities. Los Angeles, routinely dismissed as a city that can’t sustain alternative media, has always harbored a diverse culture of avant-garde cinema artists and a latent audience that is hungry for noncommercial film and video.  

[Editor's note: Pacific Film Archive, on publishing its first book, Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000, offers the second of three preview excerpts to readers. A film/video series in conjunction with the book launch runs through March 31 and this week work by Sandra Davis, Jay Rosenblatt, Greta Snider, Dominic Angerame, Scott Stark and Jenni Olson Sunday, November 21. A Radical L@te program Friday, November 19 featuring Nao Bustamente also celebrates the book. Purchase the book at UC Press.]

Yet the Bay Area and its relatively small cities—encompassing San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland, as well as Marin and Contra Costa Counties, Palo Alto, and Santa Cruz—remains unsurpassed as a place where artists using film and video for personal expression choose to live. Since the mid-1940s the area has embraced a radical media culture as original as it is broad. This kaleidoscopic book suggests how and why this confluence of people and place has produced a film culture that in vibrancy and influence compares with the Bay Area’s experimental literary tradition. On the one hand, there are the poets Robert Duncan, Michael McClure, Diane di Prima, and Leslie Scalapino; on the other, the filmmakers Christopher Maclaine, Bruce Conner, Gunvor Nelson, and Nathaniel Dorsky. What is there about the Bay Area that helps sustain “outsider” activity, and what are some of the ways in which this culture has evolved? Answers to these questions are clearly subjective, but several things are apparent. 

San Francisco is a landscape of vibrant qualities and challenging extremes, a geographic region given to unpredictability and flux. Sidney Peterson, a San Francisco native and one of its first avant-garde filmmakers, was fascinated by the city’s spatial dissonances and disorientation. San Francisco’s hills, he wrote, “violat[ed] that sense of linear perspective which is as much a part of most people’s way of viewing things as their ability to read and write. . . . On the flats and slopes between the hills the situation was one of a natural deflection of vistas, of areas made human in scale by subdivision, of easy orientation and constant unrolling and revelation. . . . The straight line simply resisted use.” For Peterson, San Francisco presented a golden opportunity for organically organizing its population, in contrast to more modern cities: 

A grid is not always practical. Many of those straight lines crawling over crooked San Francisco hills were practically insurmountable prior to the appearance of Andrew Hallidie’s cable car [in 1870]. Following cow paths would have been more sensible. . . . The struggle, inevitably, continues. The hills remain. By actual pedestrian count there used to be fifty assorted peaks, bluffs, dunes, mounts and the like and now there are forty-three.1 

Defiance (or idyllic delight) lies at the core of this urban area, compounded by the irrationality of its having been founded near a major fault line. The topography Peterson describes often allows one to look back at where one has traveled from and forward to where one is going, conflating past, present, and future. It is a constant play of time and space, encouraging adventurers to make daily discoveries and challenging them to start something new. 

The Bay Area also has a singularly diverse population. Beginning with the Gold Rush, people have migrated from every part of the continent, as well as from Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa—a mix now common in other cities. These migrants joined the polyglot heritage of local Native American tribes, among the most peaceful and nonmaterialistic of any on the continent. People are lured here, but some move on when they become disenchanted or find better economic opportunities elsewhere; this coming and going creates another kind of disconcerting instability, but it also injects new blood and fresh ideas into the scene. 

The region’s intense 150-year urban history benefits from as much as it has been limited by its remove from East Coast and European establishments. This removal can lead to a sense of insularity and myopia, yet it promotes a heady freedom from restraints and conventions. When, in 1985, I drove the Canadian painter and filmmaker Joyce Wieland from the airport for her stay as a visiting artist at the San Francisco Art Institute, she commented on how sleepy and placid the city appeared. By the semester’s end, Wieland’s life had been radically transformed by the many wildly original people and activities that aren’t apparent at a cursory glance. 

Regardless—or because—of its built-in appeals and contradictions, the San Francisco Bay Area holds the world’s imagination. Its history of radicalism and splendid, if unstable, geography make it fertile ground for artistic innovation. The area is a haven for iconoclasts and pioneers whose conviction is that anyone has the authority to make and show anything, with or without external support. Media inventors, from Eadweard Muybridge and Philo T. Farnsworth to do-it- yourself avant-garde artists Bruce Baillie, Stephen Beck, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Sidney Peterson, Alan Rath, and Greta Snider, all found this an enticing place to set up shop. Stan Brakhage used to say, “San Francisco is the city of my dreams,” while for Alfred Hitchcock, who made The Birds and Vertigo in the Bay Area, this place was an ideal metaphor for human vulnerability and the unrelenting passage of time. For Mark McElhatten, a noted curator who lived in San Francisco for extended periods, the city was unbinding: “With the dense fog and the beautiful foghorns, I always felt I was on an island that had come unmoored and was floating way out in the ocean, drifting and then finding its way back and docking in the morning. It felt detached from everything.”2 

...Avant-garde film and video art have especially flourished in the Bay Area since World War II. We explore the intricate web of alternative media subcultures and interlinked activities; spanning generations, media, and aesthetics, this is a world as prismatic and multifaceted as the region that spawned it. Two networks make vital contributions to this cultural ecosystem.... One includes the many screening series and venues that in combination and over time present a full range of experimental cinema and its offshoots. On any given night there can be a dozen events at theaters, galleries, and private settings. The second network includes the many college art-making programs dedicated to avant-garde film and artistic self-expression. Each thread of activity began with a single or small number of individuals who attracted others to enlarge their original vision. Some lasted briefly, while others have survived for years; all helped sustain the Bay Area’s renewing cinematic culture. A hunger for creating community, whether small and self-contained or expansive in its outreach, is crucial to why Bay Area alternative cinema has flourished for so long. 

The tenacious spirit and imagination of San Francisco’s media artists and curators keep many kinds of work in the public eye. Long-lasting screening series have made the deepest impact through their intrepid programming and reach across generations; when seen collectively, they form a wide spectrum of ways this kind of work can be seen. San Francisco Cinematheque began in 1961 as Canyon Cinema, a nomadic group presenting underground programs in different settings, and developed into a small organization that presents a regular series, produced by artists and curators. The Pacific Film Archive’s experimental film and video programs, initiated in 1971 but regularized and greatly expanded in the mid-eighties, mixes complex series of original programs into a larger repertory of world cinema, all within a major university art museum. 

The Exploratorium, beginning in 1982 and maintained largely through the efforts of a single staff curator, Liz Keim, combines experimental and educational media, presented both theatrically and as installations, into large-scale, family-friendly exhibitions with science-based themes. New (formerly No) Nothing, created in 1982 by a group of independent filmmakers using their studio space as an intimate venue, opposes any use of money in continuing its operation, and its programs are suggested or approved by the artists themselves. Other Cinema, begun in 1986 and located in a community media-access storefront, is a self-funded, provocative, and wildly eclectic series curated by a film collector who is also an influential filmmaker, Craig Baldwin. These approaches echo and have been echoed by dozens of related efforts going back to the forties. Experimental cinema often appears in informal and unexpected settings. City life itself seems to breed moving-image art. Busy streets, empty lots, motels, abandoned buildings, and decaying factories become sites for installations or impromptu screenings. Semiprivate salons—the socially charged encounters organized by Curt McDowell in the seventies, festive gatherings at the home of Carmen and Susan Vigil in the seventies and eighties, films put in startling juxtaposition by Jack Stevenson in the eighties and nineties, and ongoing film potlucks initiated by Scott Stark or Konrad Steiner beginning in the eighties—offer feedback on works in progress and a sharing of recent discoveries. 

Storefronts, lofts, and basements are for a time transformed into gathering spots of small and committed, lively audiences. Hundreds have been used as locations for punk media spaces (Club Generic, Club Foot), a video and performance art gallery–theater (La Mamelle), grassroots centers for underground screenings and workshops (Video Free America, Artists’ Television Access), a small basement home theater (Total Mobile Home, the original micro- CINEMA), and an enduring series mixing all kinds of discarded and intriguing films (Oddball Film + Video). 

Independent series—spunky and sometimes self-financed and nomadic—are often presented by larger hosting organizations. Two pioneering efforts emerging from large institutions, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s original Art in Cinema in the forties and early fifties and San Francisco State University’s Art Movies in the fifties and sixties, are chronicled in these pages. Smaller series with revolutionary energy frequently emerge, a testament to the area’s ongoing pioneering spirit, among them Camera Obscura Film Society, a dream by two young filmmakers to make experimental work visible during the conformist fifties; eye music, a multidisciplinary series presented at a prominent visual arts gallery; and MadCat, a peripatetic international festival of film and video by women. Subversive groups of loosely banded individuals have coalesced to challenge the status quo, such as early Canyon Cinema, No Nothing, or Video Refusés and X Factor, the latter artist-initiated reactions to invitational festival programming. 

Dozens of annual festivals designed to reach particular communities— many kinds of which began in the Bay Area, such as the gay and lesbian, Jewish, Asian American, and Arab film festivals—challenge audiences by presenting avant-garde work. The Film Arts Foundation’s festival, lasting more than two decades, provided ongoing support for Bay Area–made independent cinema and always included experimental artists. The local PBS station, KQED-TV, produced two pioneering television series, one presenting commissioned artist videos (Dilexi, 1969) and the other uncensored (and controversial) programs curated by local exhibitors of independent and experimental cinema (The Living Room Festival, 1993–96). ....

To read the rest of this introductory essay to Radical Light, purchase the book at UC Press.

1. Sidney Peterson, “The Great American Hill Town” (unpublished manuscript), collection of Anthology Film Archives, New York.
2. Unpublished interview, Binghamton, New York, 1996.

  • Nov 3, 2011

    Essential SF: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

    With riveting characters, cascading revelations and momentous breakthroughs, Epstein and Friedman’s work paved the way for contemporary documentary practice.

  • Nov 2, 2011

    Essential SF: Susan Gerhard

    Susan Gerhard talks copy, critics and the 'there' we have here.

  • Oct 31, 2011

    Essential SF: Karen Larsen

    Universally warm sentiment is attached to the Bay Area's hardest working indie/art film publicist.

  • Oct 28, 2011

    NFPF’s ‘Treasures 5’ Excavates 'The West'

    The National Film Preservation Foundation delivers another gem with the fascinating three-disc box set 'The West 1898-1938.'

  • Oct 28, 2011

    Joshua Moore, on Location

    Filmmaker and programmer Moore talks process, offers perspective on his debut feature and Cinema by the Bay opener, ‘I Think It’s Raining.’

  • Oct 26, 2011

    Essential SF: Canyon Cinema

    For 50 years, Canyon Cinema has provided crucial support for a fertile avant-garde film scene.

  • Oct 24, 2011

    Signs of the Times

    Director Mina T. Son talks about the creation of ‘Making Noise in Silence,’ screening the United Nations Association Film Festival this week.

  • Oct 20, 2011

    Children’s Film Festival Moves in and out of Shadows

    Without marketing tie-ins, plastic toys or corn-syrup confections, a children’s film festival brings energy to the screen.