Two Programs about the Austrian Avant-garde Cinema

Without doubt Peter Tscherkassky can be named amongst the outstanding figures of world experimental cinema and next to Michael Haneke he is probably one of Austria’s best known film artists these days. Tscherkassky’s films premiere at Cannes, Toronto and Venice and are invited to numerous festivals all over the globe.

But it is not only this success which makes him a central figure within the history of Austrian avant-garde cinema. As a theorist, teacher, writer and editor of books he became very influential also for upcoming generations of visual artists and not only in Austria.

Peter Tscherkassky always saw himself within a certain tradition of an Austrian experimental cinema which had it’s beginnings in the late 1950s when Peter Kubelka and Kurt Kren made their first films which became pioneer works and part of a strong global movement of structural films since the 1960s.

The so called second generation of Austrian experimental filmmaking was partly even more radical in questioning the institution of cinema with provocative expanded cinema performances and actions.

Tscherkassky started making films in the 1980s. Like most of his fellow film artists at that time his primal material was Super 8 and in the beginning their access to filmmaking seemed less orientated on structural mechanisms of cinema than on the poetic potential of the images themselves. That means the “work” on the images became of a new importance but at the same level brought along a reflection on questions of representation, feminism and ethnography. And it was the time when working with found footage became a prominent art practice to deconstruct conveniences of watching movies and establish new artistic interpretations of the material. This was artistic practice that Peter Tscherkassky brought to its mastership.

The two programmes follow several lines: The central idea was to embed the films of Peter Tscherkassky, who is dedicated a broader focus during BIM 2016, within the traditions of Austrian avant-garde cinema. The second main goal was to carve out the broad range of aesthetics and artistic approaches which have developed over the decades.
Last not least the dialogue between historic and recent movies show quite plainly the awareness of traditions and roots, the continuities and references existing within the long history of experimental cinema in Austria.

It’s this awareness of its tradition next to the public perception due to festivals like the Diagonale, the Viennale and others, distribution organisations like sixpackfilm, and a specialized funding system in Austria that guaranteed that avant-garde cinema has become and will continue to stay one of Austria’s cultural highlights.

The first programme, titled Within the Light and Sound Machine, refers to Tscherkassky’s interest in the mechanisms of cinema, its potential of being more than “just a vehicle for story-telling” but rather an art form by itself, structured by optical and mechanical principles.

That includes of course some of the best know structural films by pioneers like Kurt Kren (3/60 Trees in Autumn (1960) or 37/78 Tree Again (1978)) and Peter Kubelka (Adebar (1957) and Schwechater (1958)) but also by op-art painter and filmmaker Marc Adrian (Black Movie II (1959)). Within this context we can also read Hans Scheugl´s semi-documentary Hernals (1967), possibly one of the most beautiful films about the use of time in film.

That structural film is still extremely vivid, playful and exiting is shown in more recent productions by Siegfried Fruhauf (Exterior Extended), Christoph Weihrich (Red Nitro) or Björn Kämmerer (Navigator), partly being students of Peter Tscherkassky in the beginning of their artists careers.

The decision to use found footage to express their art is beginning to be seen in the work of this younger generation presented in this programme, such as Michaela Grill and Martin Siewert with Cityscapes, Elke Groen and Christian Neubacher with Optical Sound or Johann Lurf with his ludicrous Twelve Tales Told.

The second programme titled Scratching Surfaces collects on one hand some of those artists of the so called third generation of Austrian avant-garde cinema which Tscherkassky himself belongs to. This concerns mainly artists like Lisl Ponger, Dietmar Brehm, Mara Mattuschka, Sabine Hiebler and Gerhard Ertl who all started more or less during the 1980s with their filmmaking.

The programme title does not primarily refer to a certain artistic practice but rather to scrutinize general social, national or visual conventions which come into question in a variety of artistic approaches.

Semiotic Ghosts is a chain of well composed travel images in an associative composition. Lisl Ponger focuses on terms of representation. Her use of the “noise” of an orchestra of blind girls tuning their instruments on the soundtrack evokes irritations which bounce back to what we see on screen. Both the artist duo Hiebler/Ertl as well as Dietmar Brehm use found footage for their work. While Brehm developed his “Pumping Screen” by intercutting scientific and porn movie material to create his menacing and uncanny universe, Hiebler/Ertl transfer excerpts from Alpine musicals in such way that the surface of an idyllic self-image of a nation is scratched.

Kurt Kren as well as Ernst Schmidt Jr. became known also for their collaborations with the Viennese Actionists in the 1960s when they filmed some of the material performances to then re-edit them, deconstructing the original dramaturgy to celebrate the “filmic material” itself. Body and performance play major roles in the films by Moucle Blackout and Mara Mattuschka. While the former is driven by feminism in the context of the sexual liberation of the 1970s using pop songs and metaphoric mirror images, Mara Mattuschka performs herself manipulating her own body which she then reanimates in combination with different animation techniques. To deal with conventions of cinema is a main topic of Kubelka’s Dichtung und Wahrheit, a “gathered footage” film of cinema-commercials test reels. Peter Tscherkassky later will use parts of the same materials when making his Coming Attractions.

All of which in the end brings us back to the key idea of these programmes which was to link Peter Tscherkassky with the traditions of Austrian Avant-Garde Cinema.

Enjoy !

Kurt Kren

5’ | 16 mm | B&W | Mono


Screening format: 16 mm


3/60 Trees in Autumn

The first embodiment of a concept of structural activity in cinema comes in Kren’´s Trees In Autumn, where the camera as a subjective observer is constrained within a systematic or structural procedure, incidentally the precursors of the most structuralist aspect of Michael Snow’s later work. In this film, perception of material relationships in the world is seen to be no more than a product of the structural activity in the work. Art forms experience (Malcolm Le Grice).

Kurt Kren

3’ | 16 mm | Color | Silent


Screening format: 16 mm


37/78 Tree Again

For his film Tree again (1978), Kren used a highly sensitive infra-red color film, a type which usually has to be developed within a very short period of time. However, Kren who always worked on a very small budget, only had a roll of film which was already five years past its expiry date and, as Kren says, “there was little likelihood of anything turning out on the film.” But he still decided to take shots of a large and splendid tree surrounded by bushes and a stretch of pastureland over a period of several weeks, from summer to autumn– a series of individual pictures taken from the same camera position. Kren’s illogical hope and his unshakeable confidence in his material were rewarded. Tree Again became one of Kren ´s most beautiful works

Kurt Kren

8’ | 16 mm | Color | Silent


Screening format: 16 mm

Austria - United States

31/75 Asyl

The camera with a sun shade is mounted on a heavy tripod in front of a window. Over 21 consecutive days the view outside is filmed from this perspective. The same three rolls of film (totalling 90 metres) are used one after the other each day while the mask in front of the camera lens is changed every day. Each of the 21 masks made of black cardboard has four or five small rectangular openings: all these openings together would give the full view. For each take (one day) not only the mask is used, but sometimes the diaphragm is closed completely. This change differs from take to take. The picture is changing constantly. Sometimes only a portion of the emulsion is exposed, and the other area remains unexposed.

Marc Adrian

4’ | 16 mm | Color | Silent


Screening format: 16 mm


Black Movie II

Black Movie II is a film without a camera, consisting solely of coloured frames; the number of frames for each colour had been drafted in advance on graph paper according to a predetermined scheme. At this time, by the end of the 1950s, Adrian developed not only a pioneering concrete and neo-constructive, kinetic and optical vocabulary as a painter, but also extended his innovative concepts to embrace film starting his Filmblock series.

Peter Kubelka

1’ | 35 mm | B&W | Mono


Screening format: 35 mm



In Adebar, only certain shot lengths are used and the image material in the film is combined according to certain rules. For instance, there is a consistent alternation between positive and negative. The film‘s images are extremely high contrast black and white shots of dancing figures; the images are stripped down to their black and white essentials so that they can be used in an almost terrifyingly precise construct of image, motion, and repeated sound. <br /> (Fred Camper).

Peter Kubelka

1’ | 35 mm | Color - B&W | Mono


Screening format: 35 mm



Kubelka’s achievement is that he has taken Soviet montage one step further. While Eisenstein used shots as the basic units and edited them together in a pattern to make meanings, Kubelka has gone back to the individual still frame as the essence of cinema. The fact that a projected film consists of 24 still images per second serves as the basis of his art.

Björn Kämmerer

7’ | 35 mm | Color | Silent


Screening format: 35 mm



In NAVIGATOR, Björn Kämmerer films a set of vertical mirrors with bevelled edges in monumental close-up, and vigorously edits them in a back-and-forward motion that offers a dizzying array of Cubist perspectives.

Elke Groen - Christian Neubacher

12’ | 35 mm | Color | Optical sound


Screening format: 35 mm


Optical Sound

Optical Sound is a homage to optical sound. The directors step to the background, the composer, at the start of the film. The hierarchy is broken, music is paramount. The composer receives raw material, abstract sounds from which he creates a rhythm made up of sounds, scratches, and voices--fragments of head and tail leaders. <br /> Only now does the original image fit with the present composition. Parts in which the picture ´s dominance represses the sound are excluded. The rhythm of the composition has written itself into the image.

Hans Scheug

16’’ | 16 mm | Color | Mono


Screening format: 16 mm



In front of the camera: Valie Export, Peter Weibel. In Hernals, documentary and pseudo-documentary procedures were filmed simultaneously by two cameras from different viewpoints. The material was then divided into phases of movement. In the montage each phase was doubled. The techniques used in this process vary. Also the sound was doubled, again using different techniques. Two realities, differently perceived according to the conditions of this film, were edited into one synthetic reality, where everything is repeated. This doubling up destroys the postulate: identity of copy and image. Loss of identity, loss of reality (e.g. schizophrenia).

Michaela Grill - Martin Siewert

16’ | 35 mm | ByN | Optical sound


Screening format: 35 mm



The perception of the city in the modern era is characterized by its fleeting and momentary nature. Social and architectural constructions are fragmented and dashing past. Cityscapes attempts to make archived recordings from the Austrian Film Museum legible along these lines. Single images are isolated from the cinematographic flow in order to scrutinise their inscribed cognitive potential. For Walter Benjamin, history disintegrates into images and not stories. Cityscapes is a search along the tracks of these images.

Christoph Weihrich

1’ | 35 mm | Color | Mono


Screening format: 35 mm


Red Nitro

A “color sound film made without a camera or musical instruments” is how Amos Vogel described Loops by Norman McLaren, who painted sound and images onto a strip of 35mm film in 1948. In a similar way Christoph Weihrich’´s Red Nitro does without this technical equipment. Frames were colored red by hand, and a white “observation slit” in widescreen format was made with the aid of stencil. The titles and frames from a found Super 8 film were pasted inside it, and the sound was stamped onto the soundtrack in a way similar to the found footage.

Siegfried Fruhauf

9’ | 35 mm | B&W | Optical sound


Screening format: 35 mm


Exterior Extended

Interior and exterior space blur in a frenzied staccato layering of digital imagery, creating the film’s distinctive sphere of subjective experience. The spectator penetrates the medium’s imaginary interior drawn in by the undertow of glimmering pictures. A subtle game of perception assembled from 36 individual frames.

Johann Lurf

4’ | 35 mm | Color | Stereo


Screening format: 35 mm


Twelve Tales Told

After a sojourn in a more contemplative series of films observing the looming ominousness of large scale architecture, Johann Lurf returns to the frenetic structural analysis of found footage with Twelve Tales Told. A dozen logos for Hollywood production companies play before you as they would precede a normal Hollywood production; appropriately in 3D if watching digitally, in 2D on 35 mm—and self-aggrandizing in any format. <br /> Only, each logo sequence, some animated with glossy grandeur (Disney, Paramount), some more restrained (Regency, Warner Bros.), is stutteringly interwoven image by image into the others, beginning with the longest and ending with the shortest.

See all the programs