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One chapter in the Dutch experimental film history: Holland Experimental Film

We're very happy to share a new blog post on the collection of Peter Rubin, written by guest writer Luisa González, a filmmaker, film programmer and researcher. Currently, she is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Latin American Research and Documentation (CEDLA), hosted by the University of Amsterdam. Luisa spent some months researching the paper archive of Peter Rubin at Eye Filmmuseum, concentrating on a particular moment in his life, the organisation he co-founded called Holland Experimental Film (HEF).

By Luisa F. González Valencia10 March 2021

The period comprising the decades of the seventies and eighties in the history of Dutch experimental film is quite fragmented and difficult to narrate under an unified story. Multiple and ephemeral projects were born in a very convoluted time which saw the proliferation of several, more democratic mediums being used, including video, a more globalized network setting, and the entering of neoliberalism which made it difficult for many artists and projects to get sustained fundings. One of those projects was Holland Experimental Film (HEF, image 1), an organization founded in 1976 for the exhibition of experimental cinema in the Netherlands and abroad. After the death of the filmmaker, curator, and Vj, Peter Rubin, who founded and led this project, the paper archive of HEF (together with the entirety of his film and video collection) was donated to the Filmmuseum. Its research offers a new tool towards a better understanding of the experimental film scene of the seventies and eighties in the Netherlands, particularly in Amsterdam. After five months of delving into the HEF’s paper archive, under supervision of Simona Monizza, Eye’s experimental film curator, and conversations held with Paul de Mol 一 filmmaker part of the board and relevant for the funding of the organization 一 and Lene Gravesen ― who as Peter Rubin’s wife supported multiple aspects of the project ㅡ this curator’s blog entry is an attempt to shed some light on this largely unknown and poorly documented fragment of the history of Dutch experimental cinema.

logo Holland Experimental Film
Image 1: Logo Holland Experimental film

As stated by Paul de Mol in his text Film, Filmmakers and Filmmaking in Holland (1978, found in the HEF archive) at the time HEF emerged, the Dutch experimental film scene was formed mainly by two main streams. One was the Dutch Film Cooperative, born in 1968, with its three branches dealing with the distribution of films, the production of films (STOFF Studio for Developing Film and Film Manifestations), and the screening of films through their Electric Cinema events held in Amsterdam, where (mostly international) avant-garde and independent films were shown. A second stream was that of the Hague School where a cinema workshop at the Free Academie “Psychopolis” led by the influential experimental filmmaker Frans Zwartjes became the hub for the creation of low budget experimental films.

The Dutch Film Cooperative ceased to exist at the end of 1973 producing fragmentations in the film scene. In recent conversation de Mol remembered how there were discussions about which kind of experimental films had more value. If the ones being made in The Hague, pointing to absurdism (as suggested by Gravesen), or the ones made and exhibited at the Electric Cinema screenings, in close connection to Structuralism (as suggested by de Mol). When Peter Rubin came to the Netherlands, he witnessed this division and envisioned a project that could join the atomized Dutch alternative film scene. Rubin, a 35 years old New Yorker with a background on experimental filmmaking, came with Lene Gravesen from Denmark after a job offered by the producer Willem Tijssen, to distribute the film Sun of the Hyenas by Ridha Béhi. But rain in the Tunisian desert had postponed its shooting for a year.

Frustrated by the circumstances, Rubin decided to start up on his own as a distributor and programmer of experimental film despite his lack of connections to the local cultural institutions, or film theatres. The first step he took was to book the retrospective of Oscar Fischinger that was touring in Europe. He took the risk, drawing on the existence of the Free Circuit, an organization founded in 1973 by some independent film producers, editors of the magazine Skrien, and the distributor Fugitive Cinema. It was to be an organization where distributors, producers, exhibitors and audience, outside of the commercial film were organized in four sections with connections between them. Initially its main goal was the production of feature length films made with 16mm. However, its exhibition section grew quickly and in short became its strongest (Short Survey on the Dutch Alternative Film Situation, by the Free Circuit). The Free Circuit helped Rubin to come in contact with the, at that time, small Dutch experimental film scene, leading him to the idea of creating Holland Experimental Film.

HEF’s national goal was the wish to join different factions of experimental film into a single wide network, but also to introduce the Dutch audience to the work of international, well-known as well as lesser-known filmmakers and artists. HEF’s international scope on the other hand, was the promotion of Dutch experimental film abroad, achieved through different tours in the United States, Western and Eastern Europe. The different events and projects were mainly financed by the Ministry of Culture. Peter Rubin, as coordinator, received a payment which allowed him to make a living, and the artists received a screening fee, plus a distribution deal, a welcome service for most of the filmmakers. As explained by de Mol: “filmmakers as Paul de Nooijer were artists, and they thought that the quality of a film was enough for it to be seen, and that’s not the way it works. So they were glad that there were people who did some public relations for their films by bringing them to the Centre Pompidou (image 2), for example. And Peter did it, he made those connections for them.”

Flyer for Cinema experimental hollandais, Centre Pompidou
Image 2: Cinema experimental hollandais, Centre Pompidou

1977 was the year when HEF was launched. The International Film Festival of Rotterdam dedicated a considerable space during seven days to their first major event called ‘Experiment 77’ (image 3), with its broad program of national and international experimental films. In May of the same year, HEF organized a national tour which took place in eighteen different cultural institutions of ten cities with several of the films screened at IFFR and others. To close HEF’s inaugural year, in September the Amsterdam Experimental Film Festival took place (image 4), as part of the ‘Kunsttiendaagse’ where the Filmmuseum showed the program ‘Master of Animation’, the Stedelijk a series of Structural films, and Melkweg experimental films from the United States.

Extract of the Experiment 77 program
Image 3: Extract of the Experiment 77 program
Amsterdam Experimental Film Festival
Image 4: Amsterdam Experimental Film Festival

In 1978 HEF started touring programs of Dutch experimental films in Western Europe and the States (image 5) at different art institutions, cultural centres and universities. Gravesen 一who accompanied Rubin crossing up and down the States in the couple of tours they did there一 explained how the organization of the tours, prior to the internet, happened just by using letters and the telephone, thanks to the ads in the magazine Filmmakers Newsletter. Printed in New York, this magazine became the main resource to look for partners and institutions interested in exhibiting film programs. The relevance of those tours would be visible in the inclusion of Dutch films toured by HEF in programs such as ‘The Other Side: European Avant-Garde Cinema 1960-80’ curated by Regina Cornwell in 1983 for the American Federation of Arts in New York.

Also in 1978, HEF continued nationally with ‘Experiment 78’. Relevant to this event was the retrospective they organized of Hollis Frampton’s work (image 6).

American tour program
Image 5: American tour program
'Experiment 78'
Image 6: 'Experiment 78'

The ‘Experiment’ events continued for six more years. In 1979 HEF collaborated with De Appel in the program ‘Works and Words’ (image 7) which showcased several filmmaker-artists from different Eastern European countries. Recently De Appel re-published the catalogue of this exhibition and created a digital archive with memories of this show. In 1982 a large retrospective of avant-garde films from the United States took place at HEF’s main collaborator, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. A show first presented at Moderna Museaet in Stockholm, was transformed for the Amsterdam show by adding lesser-known filmmakers, including women. Chick Strand, Gunvor Nelson, Shirley Clark, and Storm de Hirsh were part of the program, with Chick Strand and Gunvor Nelson coming to Amsterdam to present their work. (image 8)

'Works and Words'
Image 7: 'Works and Words'
Experiment '81-82 program at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam
Image 8: Experiment '81-82 program at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam

The 1981 and 1982 ‘Experiment’ events were merged into one manifestation dedicated to computer art, having as main guests Steina and Woody Vasulka from their creative hub The Kitchen. It was the moment when the introduction of digital images and the possibility they opened for live cinema, started to capture Rubin’s interest. Essays reflecting on the change of medium, from 16mm to Super 8mm, and the use of video are present in this part of the archive, like his Some ramblings on Super 8 and 8 mm filmmaking from 1981 (image 9). They offer a perspective on how filmmakers, and Rubin specifically, were transforming their work together with the tools they gathered. As suggested by Gene Youngblood 一planned guest of Experiment '81-'82 who couldn’t travel一 since the late 1950s experimental film has been a technique exercise, where “the message has been the medium” (1970, 75). [Youngblood, Gene. Expanded Cinema. 2001a ed. ARTSCILAB, 1970.]

'Some ramblings on Super 8 and 8 mm filmmaking' by Peter Rubin (1981)
Image 9: 'Some ramblings on Super 8 and 8 mm filmmaking' by Peter Rubin (1981).

The information about the ‘Experiment’ events after 1982 becomes scarce in the paper archive, and in de Mol’s and Gravesen’s memories. The life as a Vj at Mazzo, a famous night club for audio-visual artists in Amsterdam, and at several Berlin techno parties, starts to take over, while Holland Experimental Film vanishes. The archive transforms into flyers, floor maps for Vj shows, Video Press Releases INC. and Undertoon Productions’ projects and invoices, the Mazzo publication Kremlin Mole, lists of videos to play on loop, and fragmented letters.

De Mol believes that Rubin stopped coordinating HEF, exhausted with the difficulties of making a living out of it, in contrast to him and other board members, who had a stable income as teachers or employees at art institutions. Gravesen, who by the time HEF finished was no longer with Rubin, sees his movement from curator and coordinator of experimental film shows to a Vj in the clubbing scene as an organic and comprehensive one. Recognizing patterns in the kind of images he made and mixed, she sees how being a Vj was a new possibility to develop what he started as a filmmaker (image 10). His interest in gathering audiences looking for new visual and sensorial experiences also endured and transformed during this transition period of his life. The Mazzo and the Berlin parties were the chance to perform for thousands of young people who loved what he did. Gravesen suggested how that should have been a main input to withdraw from Holland Experimental Film, whose shows could sometimes only reach a few.

Frame from Chromapark '95 - Performance Master, mixed of images done by Rubin for the E-werk in Berlin
Image 10: frame from Chromapark '95 - Performance Master, mixed of images done by Rubin for the E-werk in Berlin.

The end of HEF also opens a path for researching other projects showcasing experimental film in the Netherlands. The global scenario and the introduction of new techniques in the 1970s and 80s, fostered relevant visual experiments particularly with expanded cinema and time based arts. A change in the sensoriality came also into place. Peter Rubin’s collection at Eye Filmmuseum composed of films, VHS tapes, slides, and other several materials is proof of that transformation (images 11 + 12).

Mazzo private party invitation
Image 11: Mazzo private party invitation.
Flyer Die Macht der Nacht in Temple (April 8, 1995)
Image 12: Flyer Die Macht der Nacht in Temple (April 8, 1995).

Reflecting on the question about the impact of HEF on the cultural infrastructure of the time, De Mol remarks how this project was an episode that contributed to the education of film as an art form, relevant to the following periods, eighties and nineties, where “cinema was no longer bound to the theatres.” Gravesen suggested HEF was a fresh wind that helped bring “a lot of people together, including some who were, up till then, not much in contact or in agreement.” To today’s researchers and film programmers like myself, HEF’s impact lies in its archive as a legacy to reflect on how our relationship with the moving image has transformed. It is a cultural heritage that opens a door to understand curatorial practices of the past century, and how with it a transoceanic and national dialogue was initiated through experimental film. How film curators, filmmakers, and institutions were approaching an audience in a period that, as the current one, seemed full of opportunities and fears due to changes in the way we interact with film. Back then video and television, nowadays computers and the internet as the main space for social interaction, particularly during the covid-19 pandemic.

For this research I’m very grateful to the gracious availability of Paul de Mol and Lene Gravesen. Lene just published a book based upon her life experience called ‘Tot het niet meer kan: Een Amsterdams verhaal van liefde en verlies’, which contains several memories of the time she and Peter lived and worked together in Amsterdam.