Hometown U: 'Expanded Cinema' featured at UAA

We're all familiar with going to the movies, obsessing over a TV series or maybe even documenting our own life in smartphone videos to share with friends or family. Although those activities seem disconnected and ordinary, scholars and artists consider them significant -- human civilization's new petri dish.

That perspective is available for mulling over at UAA's Kimura Gallery Monday-Wednesday where an exhibit called "Expanded Cinema" loops four contemporary short films by young, nationally known experimental filmmakers.

More on those films in a minute, but first, a little background on "expanded cinema." A former California newspaper reporter, Gene Youngblood, coined that term in a book of the same name published in 1970. In it, he suggests that our media-soaked habitat is effectively replacing nature as the new ecosystem.

"The intermedia network has made all of us artists by proxy. A decade of television-watching is equal to a comprehensive course in dramatic acting, writing and filming ... the mystique is gone -- we could almost do it ourselves. Unfortunately too many of us do just that: hence the glut of sub-mediocre talent in the entertainment industry." This decline, he argues, is what forces cinema to expand and become more complex.

There is a lot more to Youngblood's analysis; he has become internationally known as a theorist of media arts and a respected scholar on alternative cinema. "Expanded Cinema" is available free online.

What's significant about his work is the many young filmmakers he understood and influenced. While film experimentation dates back to the 1940s, few could find a home for their work. Museums and art galleries weren't interested; neither were film houses and movie theatres. Creators had to make their own venues.

Michael Walsh of Homer, an experimental filmmaker with a national reputation, curated the Kimura show in collaboration with UAA art professor Sean Licka.

In his guest lecture, Walsh tells the story of Anthony McCall and his 1973 work, "Line Describing a Cone." It involved projecting a cone of light on a wall that takes 30 minutes to evolve from tiny dot to full circle. It happens in a room filled with smoke, designed to emphasize the sculptural qualities of light, and allow the audience to interact and intercept it. McCall's original 1973 16mm version showed at the Kimura opening. The image accompanying this column captures Anchorage viewers engaging with the cone.

Back in 1973, McCall had to create his own venue, an old New York City warehouse. No adequate mist machine was available, so he invited his guests to smoke cigarettes and shuffle their feet on the dusty floor to create a medium for the light cone. Discouraged by lack of venue and support. McCall didn't create another light piece until the '90s, but was eventually commissioned in 2012 by the London Olympiad to create a column of light over that city.

The chances of seeing one of the earliest and most influential original works of expanded cinema in Anchorage are rare if not impossible. Yet even here on the frontier, a loose affiliation of artists, designers, dancers and writers, called "The Light Brigade," staged a form of expanded cinema beneath the Ship Creek Bridge on March 1, using computers and sound waves from Taiko drums to affect flashing lights and video on the underside of the bridge. Before a small crowd on a chilly Friday night, they created this "gesture" in preparation for a pinnacle event at the Anchorage Museum on the Fall Equinox, September 21, 2013.

Now back to those four looping films, called single-channel works in expanded cinema. All are short and created within the last few years, sometimes with found online footage. If you miss the exhibit, versions, excerpts, or other works by the same creators, are available at the links. In his lecture, Walsh introduced each piece with remarks tying them to the expanded cinema movement. His remarks are available here.

Tony Balko's "Three Men and a Baby Ghost," 9 minutes, footage from the original "Three Men and a Baby" comedy that morphs wildly to explore an urban myth. Called "a psychedelic trip through the astral plane."

Brent Coughenour's "work in progress," 13 minutes, using found online footage, introduced as "something here to describe, in roundabout terms, not what it means, but rather what it does."

Martha Colburn's "Triumph of the Wild," 7 minutes, described by Holly Willis in SoCal Focus: "references the iconic portrait of state power in 'Triumph of the Will' from 1934, replacing Leni Riefensthal's paean to grace and symmetry with chaos and disorder."

Michael P. Walsh's "Braking Breath," 5 minutes, 35mm film described by Walsh as nostalgic: "I am a helpless romantic in a battle against what feels at times like the soul-sucking, easy access and uncrafted orgies of video."

Other than briefly introducing Walsh and his lecture, Licka was a fixture in the background. Walsh publicly thanked him for bringing such avant-garde work to Anchorage. Later, Licka said his goal for the Kimura is exactly that--to offer the campus and the community exposure to art that can be challenging, citing Northrop Frye's assumption that universities are for "educating imaginations."

Kathleen McCoy is an electronic media specialist at UAA, where she highlights campus life through social and online media.