By Tomáš Hudák
Despite film becoming a predominantly digital medium in the 21st century, photochemical film has not disappeared completely. There is still a vibrant scene of experimental cinema around it that doesn’t value analogue film for its past glories but focuses on how it can speak to our present and help us reflect on contemporary issues like climate change. Newly established artist-run labs and collectives are therefore not only an expression of artistic ambitions or aesthetical priorities, but can be understood as part of wider social and political movements.
This moment of time is captured in Kim Knowles’ recent book Experimental Film and Photochemical Practices. A senior lecturer in Film Studies at Aberystwyth University, Wales, and a long-time curator (among others) of Black Box strand at Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF), Knowles connects film theory with contemporary thinking on humans, our role in the world, and our ability to understand it. With the ambition of coming up with a new theory of materialist film, she draws inspiration from new materialism, post-humanism, post-anthropocentric philosophies, or ecological criticism to demonstrate how experimental cinema working with photochemical film can challenge our ideas of human dominance and teach us new ways of perceiving the world. “The new theoretical framings I am proposing here shift the emphasis away from film’s auratic qualities, which have tended to dominate discussions of celluloid in the digital era, and towards a politics of representation that activates key contemporary discourses on the relationships between materiality and perception” (p. 54).
Knowles focuses on contemporary practice with only brief excursions into the historical perspective on structural or materialist cinema. She refers to the refusal of traditional understanding of representation and illusionism of narrative cinema (Peter Gidal) and shows how it is possible to represent through physical contact with the film strip. Emphasizing the physicality of the film strip similarly to Man Ray (subject of Knowles’ first book A Cinematic Artist: The Films of Man Ray), Knowles understands “film as a surface rather than a transparent window” (p. 26). It all leads to non-anthropocentric (following Stan Brakhage’s notion of non-human vision) “alternative forms of knowledge that rely on material entanglement and physical connection” (p. 27).
The book can also be regarded as an overview of a certain part of contemporary experimental practices – without a claim of completeness. Knowles describes the variety of ways filmmakers work with film material and all the different topics they open. Bill Morrison, for example, finds beauty in chemical decomposition that “shift[s] attention from the photographic image to the material surface” (p. 29). Greta Snider or Emmanuel Lefrant suggest ecological consciousness by letting toxic materials or weather physically affect emulsion. Bea Haut and Jenny Baines test out “parallels between the material constraints of the Bolex camera and the limitations of the physical body” (p. 117). Esther Urlus studies how colour is captured by film emulsion and how it is then perceived by the human eye. Jennifer Reeves and Penny McCann transform images in such a way that film makes us question our perception: “What if our habitual ways of seeing the world are conditioned by the long-standing belief in human superiority and the domination of all things, both animate and inanimate?” (p. 167). These are only some of the approaches to materialist cinema Knowles describes in her book: she writes about touch, body, physical instability, vulnerability, sight, or photographic realism.
Knowles doesn’t shy away from the social aspects of photochemical practices. Understanding them as a form of subculture, she puts them in context with contemporary movements such as slow food, commons, or second-hand culture. Collectives are generally non-hierarchical organisations created on ideas of sharing knowledge, finding use for older materials and equipment, or an effort to be as independent on commercial industry (which in cinema is possible only to a degree) as possible. With a more or less explicit anti-capitalist ethos, they are fighting the narrative that digital is replacing film – which doesn’t necessarily mean they are against digital.
One of the most interesting parts of the book is the author’s personal report from Film Farm, a workshop retreat in a remote part of Canada, where some 15 people meet every year to create a filmmakers community. They help each other and using photochemical film, they learn how to see the world around them differently. The point lies in “drawing attention away from the final product and emphasising a more mindful practice of observation, reflection, being in the moment and responding instinctively to one’s surroundings. The work emerges through an organic relationship between different material elements that make up each individual experience of the workshop—the body and mind of the participant, the landscape, the physical properties of the camera, celluloid and chemistry, as well as the unique social setting” (p. 145).
Desistfilm: You start the book reflecting on the notion of the old and the new, on the narrative that the new is always better and on how capitalism creates a cycle of obsolescence. What you write seems to be coming from a personal place and goes beyond cinema. Was it a point of departure for you when writing the book?
Kim Knowles: The book connects my theoretical interest in experimental cinema with my own ethical alignment and political beliefs. I quickly saw that alternative communities spoke to me in terms of my politics. It was in researching the relationship between obsolescence, nostalgia, and material culture that I came to a broader understanding of the old as oppositional. That led me to an interest in vintage aesthetics.
From absorbing different discourses on old media came a realisation that film was seen by people as kind of retro. I never thought about film from that perspective, but once I understood that film was framed in that way, I wanted to understand the concept of nostalgia more. That took me in a different direction and my research became much more about cultures of recuperation, second-hand culture, vintage, retro…
You could read the book as a book about photochemical film, but you can also read it as a book about resistant, alternative cultures and different ways of engaging with materials. Even my previous research into 1920s avant-garde films was all about the culture of resistance to the mainstream. A lot of the ideas in the book come from broader theoretical concerns not necessarily related to film specifically.
Desistfilm: Is that why you focus not only on aesthetics, but also look at the social aspect of photochemical practice as a form of subculture with small collectives? And again, you put this movement into a wider context of resistant cultures.
Kim Knowles: Alongside my work as an academic, I have been part of various artist film networks for many years, so for me, the photochemical film practices have always been associated with networks and cultures. It wasn’t really possible to talk about aesthetics without talking about the infrastructures that create and sustain it.
I wanted to look at photochemical practices in the context of other subcultures and cultures of resistance – and on top of that came environmental politics and ecological consciousness, which is where my research is heading now. I connected the culture of a more ethical way of organizing, making, and sharing with aesthetics in the book by suggesting these ways of making films can give rise to new ways of seeing the world. Maybe it’s an ambitious or utopic idea that photochemical film can bring about a new kind of ethical or environmental consciousness, but I’d like to think that at least it brings about a new way of perceiving.
Desistfilm: You discuss photochemical practices in the context of contemporary thinking of post-humanism, post-anthropocentric philosophies, and new materialism. Why was it important for you not to focus only on film practice, but create this context?
Kim Knowles: It has a lot to do with the evolution of the book. I had the idea for the book about ten years ago, but it was quite a problematic process in the sense that I didn’t really know what my argument was. Originally, it was going to be a lot more about obsolescence and nostalgia. At a certain point I hit a crisis with the book, so I put it aside for a few years and worked on other things.
By the time I returned to it, I was reading a lot of work on post-humanism. I started with Rosi Braidotti’s The Posthuman, which had a massive influence on me, then Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter. I realized my theoretical interests lay outside of film studies and that film studies as a discipline wasn’t offering me the tools I needed to develop this book. I became interested in new materialism, the concept of Anthropocene, environmental politics, eco criticism… I understood my argument lay in that field which helped me to re-establish the book. It seems like I needed something to hinge my argument of the value of photochemical film on, something that made it relevant in the contemporary context.
Desistfilm: Probably the most fascinating part of the book is when you argue that photochemical film can question our anthropocentric point of view, that it can teach us how we can relate to the world around us differently. Could you tell me where this came from?
Kim Knowles: Basically, I was looking for an updated theoretical argument for materialist film. I could have found it somewhere else, probably. For example, I think feminism is still quite fertile ground for thinking about materialist film. I only touch upon it in the book, but that could easily have become my main focus. However, I am much more interested in the way that film, and here I am talking not just about photochemical film, but film as a medium in general, can ask questions about the way we see the world and the way the world presents itself to us. The way that the film deals with environmental questions – not just like in a factual documentary way. I think experimental documentary has tools to make us think differently and see differently. I am quite convinced of the power of experimental cinema as a political tool.
Photochemical film offers us material engagement or material sensibility. I am always very cautious not to set up dichotomies between film and digital, to say film is this and digital is that; I don’t think it’s particularly useful. However, film has a mode of expression very different to digital, it has a materiality that offers a different kind of communication with other material things. And I see the surface of the film strip as a site of political articulation that is very different to what digital media does. That’s not to argue for some kind of superiority of photochemical film over other forms of image-making in terms of expressing the non-human. It just has certain capabilities that other media don’t have. I wanted to express that in the book without setting up polarized positions for different media.
Desistfilm: Other important words that keep appearing in the book are “body” and “touch”. You write about hand-processing of the films, about the physicality of the film strip, how touch is important during the process of making the films. There is a haptic quality of the photochemical film.
Kim Knowles: The experience with Film Farm made me realize that theories of the haptic image or theories of embodiment are often articulated from the perspective of viewing. We talk about embodied spectatorship, but we don’t always relate theories of embodiment to the moment of making, the act of filming or hand-processing. These connections have been made in the past in relation to experimental cinema, but not argued with any force. I think there are possibilities for relating photochemical film practice to theories of embodiment and to questions of how we can capture the trace of a gesture or traces of process.
At a certain point in writing the book I realized I was interested in processes, not just what we see on the screen. In the review of the book in Art Monthly, Deke Dusinberre says that I don’t talk so much about the content of the films and the way that the films are actually viewed; I take very different films that are viewed very differently and place them together through the discussion of process. Yes, that’s what I am interested in. I think we have talked enough about spectatorship in film theory. I wanted to reverse the terms of the argument and say what we learn from thinking about processes, specifically, what we learn about ideas of embodiment in discussions of process.
Desistfilm: That brings us back to the idea of a new kind of non-intellectual perception of the world…
Kim Knowles: In many ways it’s the central point of my argument: the surface of the film strip allows an intervention that’s based on touch. It’s what I call an aesthetics of contact; it’s the power of something touching something else and physically leaving an imprint. We can talk about the inherent indexicality of film compared to digital. I didn’t want to go down that road, because we can just keep saying the value of film is in its indexicality; that’s only interesting up to a point. What’s more interesting for me is the way the touch more generally opens up a different way of understanding or experiencing the world. A lot of my ideas are inspired by phenomenology – or at least influenced by other writers who are influenced by phenomenology like Laura Marks, Vivian Sobchack, Claire Colebrook, or Steven Shaviro. Essentially, it’s this idea of privileging the physical experience and bypassing more traditional ways of understanding the world that are based on vision and cognition.
It’s not insignificant that my dogs are behind me playing with their toy. I was trying to access a kind of animal understanding of the world. I became quite influenced by animal aesthetics, experiencing the world in different ways – that’s where I talk about Brakhage and his theory of vision, asking us to imagine vision through the eyes of a non-human being.
Desistfilm: You already mentioned the experience of Film Farm. It’s one of the most interesting moments in the book when you suddenly change the tone and there is a quite personal recollection of going to Film Farm in the otherwise scholarly work: it’s a report on your personal experience of going to the retreat, learning how to make a film, being open to the new challenges, you write about vulnerability and insecurity. Why was it important for you to include this experience in the book?
Kim Knowles: It’s nice that you bring out the idea of insecurity because one of the things we generally don’t do in academic writing is to draw attention to our insecurities. Going into that place of not knowing. It’s all about being authoritative, putting across ideas and arguments, doing it in a way that’s persuasive and informative. And my experience with Film Farm was defined by not knowing – not knowing what I wanted to achieve, not knowing my limits, not knowing my abilities, being out of my comfort zone, feeling insecure in my own body, which was a really important part of that process.
When I came home to write that section of the book, I was not sure how I could move from the space of experience to a form of academic objective report. Going there, I didn’t have a plan on how to approach the writing, but since I didn’t make that many notes through the process, it was a sign that I wasn’t prepared to write it in a traditional way. When I sat in my garden over the rest of the summer, all I could feel was a desire to write in the most subjective voice. I thought if I just started accessing my memory through my body then I could start to tie it all together. So I started to write it as though I would write a diary.
There is an important temporal element that has to do with memory, even though I don’t necessarily say it. It’s the way that I relive the experience through memory and geographical distance. A lot of my memories were actually influenced by where I was when writing it. The time and the place of writing connected with the memory of the time and the place that I was writing about. By that I mean that watching a bee on the lavender in my garden at home and seeing birds flying around in my garden and playing with my dog, all those things triggered memories of that experience of Film Farm.
I felt a kind of mixture of excitement, anxiety, and fear about how it would be received and how it would fit with the rest of the book. It felt a bit like a gamble to incorporate into an academic book something so highly subjective and really draw attention to myself. But it’s a book I am the happiest with because it really expresses something about me, about my worldview.
Desistfilm: Apart from the theoretical concerns, you can read the book as a sort of overview of contemporary photochemical experimental cinema. Was this part of the idea of writing the book?
Kim Knowles: That the book is a document of the moment. I wrote the book in the knowledge that in 20 years’ time things are probably going to look very different artistically and environmentally. I always wanted it to be a view from here – this is the snapshot of now, this is what’s happening at the intersection point. That was for me more important than providing an overview of contemporary film practice.
I was interested in looking at filmmakers that were working in the context of obsolescence, which necessarily meant more contemporary filmmakers. I also wanted to connect that to history, because I am primarily a film historian, but in the end, I didn’t do the same historical mapping as I expected. I actually wrote a chapter that didn’t make it into the final book about the historical trajectory of materialist intervention in film, where I talk about films from the 40s to the 60s in a lot more detail. But I realized that was not what I wanted to do. Even though the historical interests me, I wanted it to be about what’s happening now. At the same time, it’s not an exhaustive view, there are lots of omissions, lots of people I don’t talk about, lots of films that are not in the book that I in a way feel bad about, because people are doing amazing things. I didn’t want it to be a big book, I wanted it to be something you can pick up and read fairly easily.
Desistfilm: When I was reading the book, I was often trying to find more about the filmmakers and watch their films – which I obviously did on Vimeo or UbuWeb. There was something strange about watching these films for which physicality is so important on the Internet, but there is basically no other way for me to see them…
Kim Knowles: I am aware of this tension between authentic material experience and accessibility. Shortly before I finished the book, I did a couple of presentations in Vienna about my research and the importance of film materials, but I was showing films on Vimeo. I had this realisation when I was there that what I was doing was really wrong. I promised myself that I would never do a conference presentation or special talk on photochemical films and show them on digital. I actually started buying prints of the films I talk about. If someone invites me to do a talk, they have to provide me with a 16mm projector. Of course, none of that is possible during Covid anyway, I don’t need to worry about it. But it was my intention at the time, two years ago, to build a library of prints of the films I talk about, buy them from the artists and travel with them whenever I do the talk. Access is important but so is material experience.
It’s true a lot of people are going to be experiencing what I write about on Vimeo because they look the films up the way you did to get a sense of what the films are and what I am talking about. And obviously the fact that the filmmakers have made those films available on-line means that accessibility is also important for them. Some filmmakers don’t make the film available to view on the Internet and that’s their choice. But I think negotiating this problem of accessibility is really important.
Desistfilm: However, it’s different when we’re talking about exhibiting these films in cinemas, galleries or other art events. What is their responsibility towards photochemical film?
Kim Knowles: Institutions have a responsibility to safeguard film as a medium in a way that they would safeguard oil painting if it were threatened with disappearance. There is a responsibility on the part of archivists, curators, educators, the institutions that can secure some kind of future for the film. I think it’s disappointing that people often go for the easy option. Projecting film on film is difficult, it opens up more possibilities of failure, it requires a level of expertise that some people can’t be bothered to deal with. So they are always going to choose the easier option, which is to screen the film from digital. I guess in the context of big events with so many different elements to coordinate, the idea of incorporating actual film projection probably feels like one complication too many. If there is a cheaper and more convenient alternative, they go for it.
But we need to embrace difficulty as well. We have to accept that film is a medium with such unique qualities and that it involves an element of difficulty as with other art objects. I think this is something that still needs a lot of encouragement, education, and lobbying to make people understand that the differences between film and digital are the same as the differences between other artistic media. Just as you wouldn’t propose to exhibit a photocopy of a major artwork, nor should you be accepting to project film work on digital. I think this is essentially what it comes down to. How committed you are to the artistic integrity of the work. But I guess this is also an issue for the filmmakers as well. Some filmmakers might say it doesn’t actually damage the integrity of the work to screen it on digital, so who am I to come in and say it should be screened on film.
Desistfilm: You are not only a scholar, but also a long-time curator of experimental films section Black Box at the Edinburgh Film Festival. How do these two jobs influence one another?
Kim Knowles: I don’t think my academic work would have evolved in a way it has without my work as a curator – and my work as a curator is more than just the Edinburgh Film Festival where I have been for 14 years now. Likewise, my curating has always been informed by my academic work; they have evolved in parallel. At this point where I’ve finished the book, my work at the film festival might start to wind down as I explore new possibilities for both my research and my curating. What I am more and more interested in is curating for different contexts rather than continually curating for the same film festival.
But that period has been hugely valuable for me. I wouldn’t have access to the films that I have written about, I wouldn’t be able to have conversations with filmmakers, sometimes those conversations have taken place at the Edinburgh Film Festival. That work has developed my position as an academic. When people ask me about my work as a curator, I often can’t disentangle it from my work as a scholar, they have been so important to each other.