It’s always difficult to survey a year, to make a note of the important moments and link them to previous significant moments in the evolution of a medium. History doesn’t work that way. What will be seen as important is almost impossible to predict. One thing, however, is certain: art and film historians will probably not dwell too long on the significance of so much film and video spread across the multi-venue, multi-themed multiverse that was this year’s dOCUMENTA (13). And that, in itself, is worthy of note. This was, perhaps, the first time that the sheer volume of film and video at an international art exhibition wasn’t repeatedly remarked upon in the art press. After previous mega shows, critics had been quick to calculate the combined running time of all the moving image work, and ask with exhaustion, ‘Just how is anybody going to watch all of this stuff?’
Longer formats, however, continue to fascinate artists working with film and video and there was no shortage of lengthy works at dOCUMENTA (13) that employed, or fractured, narrative devices. From Clemens von Wedemeyer’s three-act multi-screen epic Muster (Rushes) (2012), set in a former Benedictine Monastery on the outskirts of Kassel, through to Omer Fast’s harrowing Continuity (2012), which tells the story of a German couple hiring consecutive male escorts to pose as their dead son, killed in Afghanistan. Perhaps more interesting than the length of these films – or their form, installation or where they were situated within the exhibition – was the fact that they were also broadcast on the public television channel 3sat towards the end of exhibition, and streamed online.
New films from Hassan Khan and Wael Shawky also impressed in different ways, but perhaps the most interesting film at dOCUMENTA (13) was barely a film at all. At the beautifully preserved 1950s cinema, Gloria Kino, Trisha Donnelly’s deeply enigmatic Untitled (2010–ongoing) managed to say something about the relationship of film and video both to their sites of presentation and to other mediums, without utilizing multiple screens or the tearing down of the fourth wall. The film was a kind of digital screen wipe: a horizontal scrolling bar scraped pixels across the wide cinema screen and seemed to promise a blank screen, but instead left behind a digital smudge. In our digitized world it might seem ridiculous to be concerned about the properties of specific mediums, but perhaps there is still something at stake in asking whether a work like Untitled is a painting or a film, or somehow both.
Another, more literal, examination of digital space was presented by Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch within their dizzyingly ambitious, sprawling but ultimately dispiriting suite of films and sculptural installations, Any Ever (2012), at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in January. Hyped up, hallucinogenic and relentless in its portrayal of a consumer culture in overdrive, Any Ever features characters making YouTube-style to-camera pronouncements about selfhood and digital identity and is strongly reminiscent of Alex Bag’s films from the 1990s.
Some artists also continued to draw closer to the cinema, without fully embracing the world of professional scriptwriters, celebrity actors and punishing promotional drives. Ben Rivers’s Two Years at Sea (2011) delighted as many art critics as it did old-school cinéastes at last year’s London Film Festival and received a cinema release this year. The film managed to fuse art-house and experimental tropes, but it will be interesting to see whether – in the current climate of shrinking public subsidies for experimental projects – Rivers, and other artists wishing to work in this way, will continue in the struggle to make feature-length films on micro budgets.
The first LUX/ICA Biennial of Moving Images took place in London in May and provided as much space for live events, talks and an experimental education programme as it did for films. This announced a refreshing new way of organizing a film festival. Also worthy of note this year were the mammoth Barbara Hammer survey at Tate Modern, Peter Watkins retrospectives at Office for Contemporary Art in Oslo, Norway, and Tate Modern, and Bruce Lacey at the BFI and Camden Arts Centre.
Finally, there were significant losses for the art-film community, with the passing of many notable figures including Chris Marker, Jeff Keen, Stephen Dwoskin, Amos Vogel and the theorist Paul Willemen. They will all be missed.