By Rebecca Naughten

Across nine days in November, in the port city in north west Spain, the 53rd Festival Internacional de Cine de Gijón screened more than 250 films. I was in Gijón to participate in ‘Convergencias’, a section of the festival programme with films chosen by critics – a set of films that will be the subject of a separate report – so I based my schedule around the screenings for that section but also those films that I might not get the opportunity to see elsewhere. This led me to focus on the relatively new FICXLab section (this was the 3rd edition of the strand), which is effectively the space given to more experimental works.

Organised by LABoral Centro de Arte, the intention with FICXLab is to highlight the blurred lines between visual artists and filmmakers in an exploration of moving images that encompasses a range of aesthetics and formats (including 16mm and digital projections). Alongside a focus on British artist Emily Richardson and an unconventional screening of José Val del Omar’s avant-garde classic Tríptico Elemental de España, the magazine / association Lumière curated a series of screenings collectively titled ‘Visions on Meditation’. Tracing the development of experimental film from the 1960s to the present day, Lumière’s series included works by the Zanzibar group, Bruce Elder, Robert Nelson, Nathaniel Dorsky, Helga Fanderl, Jonathan Schwartz, Thom Andersen, and a retrospective of Portuguese artists João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva.

Robert Nelson’s films were unavailable for a long time because he systematically withdrew them from circulation, however a few years before his death in 2012 he re-issued some of his works including the diptych that screened in Gijón: Suite California & Stops Passes Part 1: Tijuana to Hollywood via Death Valley (1978) and Suite California & Stops Passes Part 2: San Francisco to Sierra Nevadas & Back Again (1978). A travelogue of sorts, the two films together form a different kind of topography of California – one made up of personal and historical markers, and the idea that the memories and histories contained within a geographical space can be simultaneously of shared and personal (individual) significance. For example, both parts contain references (i.e. the Landmark Plaque Number and the associated citation) to California Historical Landmarks, which are described on their official website as ‘buildings, sites, features, or events that are of statewide significance and have anthropological, cultural, military, political, architectural, economic, scientific or technical, religious, experimental, or other historical value’. These could just be viewed as markers on the journey that Nelson underwent with his camera, but they take on a personal resonance when they bookend the director interviewing his father alongside the Golden Gate Bridge about family connections to the building of the structure. A space is shaped in part by the people who live and work within it (and viceversa).

The films are also a journey through time, with a deliberate juxtaposition of time and place. This is seen in the use of archival (early twentieth century) film of specific locations on the route but also in the way audio of a droning tour guide at the Will Rogers Museum is juxtaposed with images of a seemingly never-ending queue of people waiting to watch The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) – old and new Hollywood, overlapping. If the landmark citations point to the layers of history through which Nelson travels, so too do the home movie footage and family photographs that dominate Part 2 as a series of family Christmases unfold with children growing up and grandparents ageing rapidly through the speed and proximity imposed by editorial rhythm. Together the two parts explore these themes with humour and a lightness of touch (Part 1 also contains a parody of ‘border crossing’ films) but they also feel like deeply personal filmmaking – as if Nelson was thinking through ideas that mattered to him through his camera and the process of assembling the resulting films.

FIXCLab marked the European premiere(s) of Nathaniel Dorsky’s Prelude (2015) and Intimations (2015). In many ways the essence of cinema (in miniature), Dorsky’s films luxuriate in movements of colour, light and shadow, as well as the duplications and doubling caused by reflections or those encountered in images with multiple planes of perspective. A shop window therefore offers the director a kaleidoscopic shadowplay through which to discern patterns in the combination of movement and light. Elsewhere images of flowers and foliage lean towards the impressionistic with the objects moving in and out of focus, something that again places an emphasis on the abstract use of colour, light and movement. Other images are likewise diffused by being filmed through screens (doors or windows), another layer of potential focus that perhaps leads us to question what the object of our gaze is supposed to be – background, foreground, or an abstract combination of the two?

Dorsky’s films screened in a double bill with the work of Helga Fanderl and there are certain shared characteristics between the two in terms of their use of colour and light, as well as an interest in the natural world. Fanderl’s films are silent, shot on Super-8 and edited in camera. Her strategy for exhibition is to assemble and edit together different combinations of existing and new works, so that each screening is a one-off – the end result in the case of Gijón was titled Communing (2015). Moving between black and white footage and colour, at times Fanderl’s camera takes on a documentary-like observation of people, as in the sequence where she effectively revisits her earlier b&w short, Mona Lisa (2000). In colour this time, people viewing the Mona Lisa in the Louvre are still more interested in recording the painting as an image than in actually looking at it, but now the technology has moved on further still with people using their iPads to edit their photographs while still in-situ. But they are also overtly concerned with placing themselves within the image as well, and in fact the ‘selfie’ aspect seems to be of more concern to them than the painting that they are posing in front of (not least because they are facing away from the artwork in order to take the shot). In common with Nelson’s films, these moments of observed human behaviour contain a lot of humour.

However, as with Dorsky, images of the natural world are also a recurrent feature (including a fascination with the play of light as seen through foliage), although in Fanderl’s film this centres most often on water and rippling (or otherwise moving) surfaces as the focus for reflections or disrupted images, either in the form of waterfalls (and the refraction of light through the attendant mist) or lakes and fountains. She also looks for the magic caused by juxtapositions of shadow and light, but with less emphasis on movement in these ‘patterns’. For example, the skeletal and geometric structure of an empty gas works is framed in a comparative manner through the natural form of tree branches, but the director also subsequently uses the structure to frame the sky through its static grids. In Communing Fanderl brought together ephemeral and fleeting moments, the textures of things already past, and accumulated emotional resonances as the assembled collection of her work progressed – it felt to me like a screening that should be experienced rather than intellectualised. I left the screening unable to put my thoughts about the film(s) into words but with a desire to see more of Fanderl’s work.