Art movies - coming to a gallery near you

Today's British cinema has no place for daring experimental film, says Chris Darke
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The Independent Culture

"In a sense you could say that cinema is dead", the British film-maker and installation artist Isaac Julien claimed last year in Sight and Sound, commenting on the slew of exhibitions in the mid-1990s celebrating the centenary of cinema. "And it's up to artists to resurrect it."

"In a sense you could say that cinema is dead", the British film-maker and installation artist Isaac Julien claimed last year in Sight and Sound, commenting on the slew of exhibitions in the mid-1990s celebrating the centenary of cinema. "And it's up to artists to resurrect it."

In the intervening years, the gallery has come to look increasingly like a space where challenging and experimental work with the moving image can be found (Tate Modern, for instance, is in the middle of a large film and video retrospective, Performing Bodies). Now that the newly-formed, market-populist Film Council has absorbed both the British Film Institute's production wing and the film and video department of the Arts Council of England (both of whose traditional remit was to produce work that would not otherwise be made), how confidently can one assume that such experimental work will be encouraged? With £5m worth of subsidy available to film-makers from the Film Council's New Cinema fund, it's fair to ask what is behind its vision of the "new". "Everything that's contemporary in innovative, low-budget, narrative fiction", the Film Council's Ian Thompson explains. "But not 'experimental' film. That's too hard to define."

Well, yes and no. The rich and diverse history of such work in the UK has nurtured important film-makers such as Derek Jarman, Peter Greenaway, Patrick Keiller and John Maybury, all of whom moved from the avant-garde into making features. Of the current generation of British artist-film-makers, the only one who, it seems, is preparing for such a transition is Turner Prize-winner Steve McQueen. Co-funded by Film Four, McQueen is currently preparing a treatment with novelist Zadie Smith and musician Tricky for a film entitled Timbuctu.

Over the last few years it's been noticeable that galleries have not only been exhibition spaces for moving-image installation work but also alternative spaces for film-makers. For example, a Chris Marker show at South London's Beaconsfield Gallery last year drew a crowd that was as much art-based as film-oriented. The same goes for gallery-screenings by Chantal Akerman and Alexander Sokurov. Harmony Korine too, whose julien donkey-boy is modern film-making at its most formally daring, has shown a multi-screen installation, The Diary of Anne Frank, in London recently. Even pop-promo fright-maestro Chris Cunningham has found that the Royal Academy (in Apocalypse) and the Anthony D'Offay Gallery can quite comfortably accommodate his extreme visions - Film Four pulled out of producing his human life-cycle horror-movie flex at a very early stage due to concerns over its graphic depiction of sex and violence.

But can you call this is cross art-form traffic "cinema"? If that definition can extend to include the work of Jean Cocteau and Kenneth Anger, why not? "People get the idea that if you're doing experimental work in film, you're getting these grants and pissing the money away," complains Louise Wilson. With her sister Jane, the Wilsons have created large-scale installations that use cinematic means to explore architectural space through multiple projections, freely admitting that they define their work against mainstream cinema and TV. "We didn't want to have passive viewers sitting in one space staring transfixed at a single screen. That's a cinematic experience we're very familiar with," explains Jane.

Nor should the Wilsons feel any compulsion to move into feature films. One of the merits of the "gallery-film" is precisely the anti-cinematic qualities of the experience it can elicit. As a spectator you're often mobile rather than seated, engaged with image rather than story. As Isaac Julien (who with Javier de Frutos is showing Cinerama at the South London Gallery) has noted, "It's more like early cinema, when audiences could come or go at leisure." Something is heralded by the "gallery-film" that reflects changes that are under way in cinema both as an art form and an institution. Maybe 21st-century cinema won't even be at the movies.

Chris Darke's 'Light Readings: Film Criticism and Screen Arts' (Wallflower Press), £12.99, is published this month. 'Cinerama': South London Gallery, SE5 (020 7703 6120) , to 22 October; 'flex': RA, W1 (020 7300 8000), to 15 Dec and D'Offay, W1 (020 7499 4100), to 5 November; 'Performing Bodies': Tate Modern, SE1 (020 7887 8008), tomorrow and 23 October.

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