Ilona Jurkonytė

From What to How

'I am aware that the phrase ‘artists’ moving image’ is at odds with my proposition that points at the potentials stemming from this type of production and this is why—at least temporarily—I am so eager to accept the code name ‘AMI’, because as an abbreviation, of course only on a surface level, it loses constant emphasis on the professional definitions of the term ‘artist’, especially as embedded in the economy of prestige...'

Depending on who is speaking, you are likely to hear the evaluation of the phenomenon known as ‘artists’ moving image’ (AMI) either as an inevitable future of filmmaking or as an ailing film industry subfield with insufficient funding. Meanwhile, institutions participating in the funding of moving image production and the culture that surrounds it have deemed it, on numerous occasions, an area that lacks substantial definitions. Despite divergent emphasises, AMI works are increasingly present across film festivals and other types of filmic events. In fact, AMI is not just passively present in film exhibition sites, but it is actively changing the landscape of audiovisual production. I, for one, am particularly pleased about how AMI is challenging the format of film events as such. Temporal and spatial boundaries get contested and redefined. Or rather, one could say, rigid film industry produced definitions are loosening up. 

Time works differently when it comes to AMI. The length of work, the age of work, its newness vs. retrospective modes, and even such formations as ‘distribution windows’ become relativised. To a large extent, in the face of AMI, the way space is ‘constructed’ in the film industry crumbles as well. The ability of such work to be installed in a venue allows it to get detached from the theatre space. The geographic spatialising tendencies that are prevalent in EUropean[1] film co-production schemes, in the case of AMI, can be overcome to a certain degree. These and many more redefinitions, which I have no ambition to thoroughly list here, are impacting moving image production, its economy, and film culture in the broadest sense.

Such challenges and questions that lead to redefining effects seem to be unable to stem from within the film industry itself. Film festivals as showcase and film industry events often lack the introspection which in the arts has been known for decades as institutional critique. I appreciate how AMI brings into film culture valid questions of redefinition by surpassing film industry obstacles which to a great extent pertain to the 20thcentury’s distribution and exhibition business models. In this sense, AMI is not a creative area lacking defining criteria, but a premonition of a paradigmatic change in the film culture. 

During the panel discussion Defining Artists’ Moving Image Production and Distribution that took place during the Kaunas International Film Festival on 27th September 2019, an event organised under the canopy of On & For Production and Distribution, one of the participants, Mindaugas Bundza, who represented the Lithuanian Council for Culture, asked a strikingly simple question: ‘What happened during the past several years that now everybody seems to want to talk about AMI?’ Participants eagerly joined in thinking together and trying to answer this question. 

Lolita Jablonskienė: ‘This is not an exclusively Lithuanian issue. What happened, happened worldwide. There is this expanding field of artist-film production that is not an experimental line of work. It is a growing line of production with content and expression different from mainstream cinema.’  

Lene Berg: ‘In addition, as opposed to video art of the 1980s–90s, there is a huge amount of people working with moving image outside of cinema contexts. I think that one of the reasons is as curator Asta Vaičiūlytė mentioned earlier, artists are trained to work much more openly with the medium. While cinema, as a space, has excluded so many. The possibilities for distribution in cinema have become more and more narrow. Whilst at the same time, the technology to make work is more and more accessible.

Ilona Jurkonytė: ‘I also would not underestimate the impact of there being fewer and fewer cinema spaces that are not multiplexes. Simultaneously, there is a very strong dictate from the side of multiplexes, working through what they include in their programmes and how they define success in exhibition. If we speak from a Lithuanian perspective, I would say we have come to see a languishing cinema culture: there are not enough cinema venues,

no progressive forms of moving image education, and yet we have the technology which allows us to produce more work and more diverse work. Meanwhile, society does not have enough access nor necessarily the tools to collectively engage with audiovisual content. To foster such thinking, we need public cinema spaces. There is a lack of spaces for collective cinema experiences.'

Lolita Jablonskienė: ‘Not to sound apocalyptic, but please don’t think that this is not the prevailing tendency in museum spaces also. Museums are becoming places of entertainment: Be more flexible! Entertain your audiences! Involve something which is ‘cheesy’ but otherwise edible. This is the same trend, which only certain established institutions are still trying to resist. In Lithuania, state funding offers some security because state money can aid you in resisting this profit-based entertainment drive.

Ilona Jurkonytė: ‘That’s a great point! I would add that this is the reason why already, back in 2007, Kaunas IFF was founded in tandem with its efforts to rescue Lithuania's oldest cinema theatre, Romuva. From its beginnings, there was an interest in bridging the gap between the film culture of the past and the current moment—and beyond. The organisation remained true to the vision that, in order to sustain an independent film culture today, we need not only publicly funded cinema events but venues as well.

I observe the paradox of how in its current state, both in art and in film culture production contexts, in western(ised) parts of the world, a re-evaluation of notions of cultural institutions’ ‘independence’ is taking place. The market impact on cultural production seems to be more visible than public funding’s.[2] We need resistance to the market-drive in spaces designated to cinema. In Kaunas IFF’s case of rescuing Romuva, although I thought we succeeded in saving it, as a cinema, we can see now that it has been turned into a multipurpose cultural house, sharing its function with dance theatre. At this point, the multifunctionality of cultural venues, for me, has become a cursed word. Sadly, multifunctionality is what is expected both from buildings and from artists too.’ 

Mindaugas Bundza: ‘I understand your points, but to proceed along the lines of the devil’s advocate, when we speak of new technology, why do we still speak about old technology, about cinema theatres, to show the work that has been created with new technology?

Needless to say, the discussion developed nicely further. Though soon enough it became obvious that, yet again, when answering such questions, we cannot linger in the area of stabile defining criteria, rather, we’ve got to shift our attentions to the flexible intersections of multiple, simultaneous, and at times even contradictory tendencies such as new technologies in old spaces. Such ‘old’ spaces that, while being state-supported, have the potential to foster film culture and take it into the future. Let me put emphasis on the venue and support that, when combined, can render space for fostering new forms of cinema. 

Attempts to define AMI are often situated in the discourse of global art cinema. We are not trying to delineate AMI’s specificity in relation to the USA’s big studio productions. This means that, from the get-go, we are basing AMI definitions in the realm of film culture production, which itself is defined, by default, by non-stable parameters of circulation patterns and their relations to national cinema funding. One important caveat to bear in mind, though, is that once we find ourselves in the area of global art cinema, we have no choice but to deal with issues of genrefication. Here, I want to draw on some of the visionary scholarship of Azadeh Farahmand,[3] who insightfully grasped existent and at times utterly unspoken tendencies in the global art cinema circuit. Farahmand exposed how national funding and exhibition circuits (in her case study, she specifically focused on the film festival circuit) create ‘new cinema waves’ along the geopolitical lines drawn by funding bodies through constantly chasing after new content. 

The usefulness of Farahmand’s analysis of genrefication is twofold. She not only warns of the pitfalls of genrefication but also offers a methodological shift in focus from what to how. In her words, ‘The theoretical model of genrefication replaces the question of what constitutes the characteristic qualities of a genre with howgeneric types are conceived.'[4]

While inspired by Farahmand’s methodological gesture of ‘from what to how’, in the context of AMI, I insist on resisting the proclivities of genrefication which are so present in global art cinema and that come with the ‘discovery circuits’ of the film industry environment. I want to warn against possible perils of genrefication which in the film industry may manifest themselves through national funding structures, and prosper in the absence of institutional critique. The treacherous tendency that I observe in attempts to turn AMI into a fundable activity is an impulse to turn AMI into a genre with stabile definitions. I would caution against that. Instead, I suggest that we should leave AMI on a meta level in relation to discussions of genre; let’s even leave it out of discussions on typology: the aged ‘documentary vs. fiction’ talk. Let’s turn AMI into a methodological device. A device that should amply impact the patterns of audiovisual works’ funding, production, distribution, and exhibition by creating less rigid and less prescriptive modes. 

I am aware that the phrase ‘artists’ moving image’ is at odds with my proposition that points at the potentials stemming from this type of production and this is why—at least temporarily—I am so eager to accept the code name ‘AMI’, because as an abbreviation, of course only on a surface level, it loses constant emphasis on the professional definitions of the term ‘artist’, especially as embedded in the economy of prestige, in the way James F. English has defined it.[5] I argue that such a way of grounding definitions of phenomena is an attempt to parse them out, which brings in issues of essentialism. It drags you into debates over who qualifies as an artist, how one becomes an artist, when is one deemed an artist, what institutional frameworks issue the status of an artist, etc. And all these questions are at odds with both institutional critique and certain freedoms that many makers, especially those coming from what we identify as art backgrounds, are attracted to in the film industry.

The question remains, how do we, as producers of film culture, avoid sacrificing the creative potentials stemming from different (non-film industry) patterns of production and, simultaneously, how do we negotiate different aspects of freedom that are available through different production paths? This is why I suggest that audiovisual culture is living through a paradigmatic shift, and one that is not only technological. It is institutional. Institutions have to reinvent themselves. They have to move beyond the 20th-century narrative approach and seek to incorporate institutional critique, which to film funding bodies could come in the shape of a developing literacy in the politics of form and an examination of positionalities. 

This is why I propose that we should think about AMI as a strategy to impact funding and production patterns by taking the best of film culture production tendencies from the film industry and from the arts, and merging them. We need a more diverse, more interesting, less micromanaged and less extractive audiovisual culture. Particularly, the new film culture could benefit from finding the intersection that encompasses the scale of production and budgets deemed eligible in film industry contexts, and the approaches to production, exhibition and circulation as they tend to be enacted in institutional contemporary art contexts.  

We hear yearning and hopes from diverse sides concerning AMI. To return to that first-of-its-kind panel in Lithuania: the film producer Dagnė Vildžiūnaitė’s motivation to work with AMI is, as she put it, because ‘cinema is stuck’; Lolita Jablonskienė’s motivation to work with AMI is because it constitutes part of art production today and, for many artists, the motivation to apply to a film fund is, simply put, that in film funds there is a potential access point to the required budgets… In the end, as Lolita Jablonskienė put it, ‘we [art and film producers] still don’t know each other enough.’ Meaning that the problems Dagnė Vildžiūnaitė identified in the cinema sphere might yet be lurking in the operational patterns of museums. The most exciting outcome of this event, as part of a EUropean project, was the unprecedented conversations that branched out among local producers of film culture and public funders in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland focused on creating an AMI production support platform in (& For) the Baltic region.

For real change, multiple work table discussions among the makers and funders are needed. Maybe then better-attuned representatives of institutions will not have to waste time finding the institutionally unacknowledged but possible ways to foster film cultures of today. Curator in Chief of the Lithuanian National Art Gallery, Lolita Jablonskienė, laid down her cards when she said: ‘As a visual arts institution, we take part in this audiovisual field in three ways: production, dissemination, and collecting. All three of them are complicated. However, I am troubled to talk about this with colleagues from the Cultural Council of Lithuania and the Lithuanian Film Center being present. I am just scared that we will be caught out in how we find ways to fund all the three directions…’ Isn’t it surprising that even major art institutions are forced into ‘clandestine’ production situations? I am convinced that actors participating in film culture should find a common denominator in these yearnings, that signal moving image work production as being too claustrophobic or ‘dead-ended’, to use producer Vildžiūnaitė’s succinct diagnosis. My proposition is to avoid looking for a stabile genre, typology, or definition and focus on taking AMI as a method, which means concentrating on diversifying the processes of production and reclaiming and radically redefining notions of success. 

Ilona Jurkonytė is a film and moving image researcher and curator. She is co-founder of the Kaunas International Film Festival and a PhD candidate at Concordia University in Montreal.