Main Content

Transdisciplinary Networks of Films on Art, Visual Anthropology and Expanded Cinema from the 1950s to the 1970s

Films on Art, ethnographic film and expanded cinema are usually regarded as distinct cinematic genres. They are studied separately within the respective academic disciplines of art history, visual anthropology, and film and media studies. The project takes the opposite approach by investigating networks of exchange between these fields, unfolding in the U.S. from the 1950s to the 1970s. It takes its starting point from the observation that films on art, ethnographic film and expanded cinema not only shared a number of intriguing conceptual similarities. Rather, they seem to have been at the core of an extensive transdisciplinary exchange of ideas, technologies and procedures that included close institutional and personal ties. Considering these networks as part of broader transformations in media cultures, epistemologies, educational politics and artistic practices, the project seeks to uncover alternative histories of technological change and changing conceptions of perception, cognition and knowledge. The focus is on specific fields of inquiry, including, amongst others, Frank Stauffacher and Allon Schoener’s films on artists and artistic practices made for the San Francisco Museum of Art, Allen Downs’s use of film in art education at the University of Minnesota, Sol Worth’s media-anthropological studies of visual communication and cinematic perception, the use of ethnographic films in the teaching program Man, a Course of Study (MACOS), expanded cinema artist Scott Bartlett’s film and video classes, and artistic research at the Center for Media Study in Buffalo, N.Y. The particular significance of these fields of inquiry, most of which have received little scholarly attention to date, results from their involvement in influential contexts of research in visual/non-verbal communication, the anthropology of perception and learning, and cognitive science. They also intersect with the formation of academic film studies in the U.S. and the development of major media theories. Regarding films on art, ethnographic film and expanded cinema as part of larger transdisciplinary networks, thus brings into focus not only questions concerning the tensions between aesthetic and informational concepts of perception and cognition, but also the significance of ideas on cultural difference and alterity for media theories (and the globalization of media), as well as the interrelations between educational uses of film as part of multimedia learning environments and the utopian aesthetic of expanded cinema approaches. Conceived as a media archeological study of educational and research film, the project promises insights into the historical preconditions of – and critical perspectives on – recent debates on network society, media epistemologies and algorithmic culture.

The focus is on three interrelated aspects:

-        participatory filmmaking in film pedagogy and visual anthropology
-        media apparatuses of filmic microanalysis of body motion interaction
-        the media ecological implications of “acoustic space”

The three areas open up complementary media historical and science historical perspectives. The focus on media participation reveals how film theory and visual anthropology were entangled in contexts of film pedagogy, communications research, the social politics of the „War on Poverty“, media activism, and policies of the civil rights movement. The focus on microanalysis demonstrates how practice theoretical methods and procedures of film analysis shaped epstemological and aesthetic conceptions of film. The third focus traces how the media ecological concept of acoustic space traveled from ethnographic research into media studies and then into experimental film, expanded arts and film pedagogy.

Considered together, the three areas open up a perspective on networks of media knowledge in the US during the 1950s to 1970s that reveals how empirical and theoretical research on media, communication, and cognition was entangled in social practices and political processes as well as technological and aesthetic developments. The project thus contributes to recent discourse on cinematic epistemologies, media archeologies, and aesthetic knowledge. At the same time it reveals the importance of nontheatrical modes of filmmaking for the formation of the disciplines of film and media studies, and visual anthropology.