ANA JANEVSKI “If you know exactly what avant-garde is and how to name it, it probably isn’t very avant-garde, right!”

On Mladen Stilinović experimental films

“After the experience of cine clubs, I stopped making films because I tried to be professional with those experimental films, but I couldn’t succeed in it at that time, it was too expensive.…”[1]

This sentence is a good starting point for introducing the context in which Mladen Stilinović brought to fruition his experimental films in the ‘70s. What Jan-Christopher Harak wrote about US tradition – that “in the earliest phases the American avant-garde movement cannot be separated from the history of amateur film”[2] – holds true also for Yugoslavian experimental tradition.

Namely, in the former Yugoslavia, experimental film almost consistently derived from the tradition of the so-called amateur film, whose base consisted in the numerous cinema clubs (kinoklub) that developed in all major cities of the former federation, especially in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Such experimental films made an important shift in the dominant filmic language and proposed new and different thematic, aesthetic and production paradigms of the time. They promoted the values of experimentation and innovation with no narration, the introduction of accidental and existential issues, or they focused on the media itself.

In general, experimental film has been separated from the mainstream and for long it has been predominantly considered within the domain of rather marginalized theory and practice. Also, its definition as well as settling the parameters of classification has been one of the most contested questions.  Although this could be a subject of another dissertation, it is interesting to note that, beside being called “experimental” and “avant-garde”, this form of cinematic expression has also been named “visionary cinema” (P.Adams Sitney), “undependent cinema” (Emory Menefee), “underground/independent” cinema (Jonas Mekas), not to mention the principles of “antifilm” and “alternative” film, elaborated by Yugoslavian theory and practice, in Zagreb and Belgrade.

Regarding the former Yugoslavia, amateur mainly stays for production conditions while experimental indicates the procedures, aspiration and effects of a specific cinema expression. Thus the separation between the two is unstable and unclear. This creative confusion in classification can be attributed in part to most of the filmmakers whose works can, in retrospect, be described as experimental met few possible fates. Either they soon exchanged amateur filmmaking for professional work in the cinema (e.g. Dušan Makavejev) or in the visual arts (e.g. Mladen Stilinović) or they went down in (or out of) history as film amateurs when the mid ‘70s saw the decline of cine clubs.[3]

According to the official system – socialist self-management of that time – self-organization was also present in the field of culture. Even more so, cinema clubs were part of the socialist project to bring technical culture and achievements closer to all citizens, and not only professionals; thus, forming amateur societies (amateur film, amateur photography, visual amateur groups and “colonies”, etc) was systematically encouraged. In 1946, a special institution was established: “Narodna tehnika” (“Popular Engineering Society”) with the aim of organizing, sponsoring and promoting different amateur activities. Even though they were under “political” control of the centre and were hierarchically organized, they were mostly left to their own devices as peripheral “amateur reservations.” The chance to pursue film was primarily taken by young people, often students and film buffs, who created in this way an important platform for experimenting and a reassessment of the conventional film language of Yugoslav cinematography, then dominated mainly by war themes: the People’s Liberation Struggle, the fight against fascism, the revolution…

Owing to constant demands for professionalization in all social systems, especially in the art world, from today’s perspective it is almost impossible to read correctly the meaning of the terms “amateur film” and “amateurism” as related to film buffs active in the cinema clubs in the ‘60s and beginning of the ‘70s all over socialist Yugoslavia, particularly in Zagreb, Split and Belgrade. Yet members of cine-clubs were amateurs, most of them adhering to the meanings Maya Deren stressed in her 1959 essay “Amateur Versus Professional”, in particular her consideration on the Latin roots of the term “amateur.“ It designates one’s practice as being “for the love of the thing rather than for economic reasons and necessity.”[4]

Participants in the film evenings in cinema clubs in the former Socialist Yugoslavia possessed vast knowledge of the first avant-garde from the twenties and thirties, and had hearsay information about the American avant-garde; yet their main impetus came rather from the modernist models of other arts: visual arts, theatre, and literature, especially anti-theatre and stream-of-consciousness novels. Besides this, film as a medium was becoming more and more widespread; it was the only medium that allowed for an intertwining of visual arts, literature of (anti) narrative, music and film references. Last but not least, their activities related to “cinéphilie,” being embodied by the experience of the spectator.

Mixed Media

Mladen Stilinović began to be interested in poetry and in film very early on. His involvement with film was strengthened, as was the case with his contemporaries, by a love of film, frequent visits to the movie theatre and regularly reading about film.[5] Although familiar with the cinema club Zagreb, Stilinović formed an alternative organization with some colleagues and film buffs: the Pan 69 film club:

“Together with Milivoj Puhovski, Branko Degenek and Boris Bata, we formed the student film club Pan69. Through the Union of Socialist Youth we received some funds to buy the necessary equipment and start making films. At first, Pan 69 had six or seven members and we were able to shoot film without any preliminary script writing or approval, as in the cine clubs.”[6]

This self-organized space (of liberty) allowed for experimenting with a camera and film tape, mainly 8 and 16mm, as well as for public/club projections of films. The first produced film was screened at GEFF, and participated in numerous (amateur) film festivals, thus creating formal and informal networks.[7]

The experience of the spectator was very important for all the young men active in such cine clubs. Stilinović frequented the cinemas and watched many films, but he was interested in systematizing them and building his own reference system, as, for example, was Tomislav Gotovac. Stilinović is an autodidact in every field, which allows him to move from one to another with a certain grace and liberty. Making films was, for him, connected with many different ideas about film, and with many different approaches. Hence, film attracted him also because it allowed for a choice of different subjects and the employing of various techniques.

Stilinović’s film career intertwines with an interest in poetry and in literature – and one of the books that influenced his way of conceiving film was Bora Čosić’s “Mixed Media”. The book, published in 1968, was created on an assemblage, mixed-media, principle, as a collage structure of visual and written materials: essays, reproductions, quotations, press clippings and Xerox, thereby creating a network of cross-references related to the history of the 20th century, to conceptual art, to film theory and to philosophy; it thus became an index/encyclopaedia of terms. The book additionally reflects on artistic practices and movements of the time: Fluxus, neo Dada, visual poetry and conceptual art, all characterized by the mixed media principle.

What fascinated the artist was experimentation and deconstruction of the traditional structure of a book along with established parameters in editing printed materials, in both a visual and textual way.

Stilinović was interested in film for its properties and structure, and for the possibility of deliberation and experimentation via the medium itself; it allowed for the dismantling of all established cinematographic codes, but also an intertwining with other artists’ interests. Thus, in his film Write No Loneliness, from 1973, a sort of media self-portrait, we find a range of direct interventions on the film tape: from scratching, painting and cutting it, to a testing of the tone-negative picture. The anti-narrative approach is emphasized by altering literal and avant-garde references, poems, and via the cover of the Dada jazz avant-garde magazine (by Dragan Aleksić). These things and some other elements – handwriting, street signs, drawings, visual poetry and textual interpolation – are seen to be present in his future works, too, when he stops making films.

The tendency of the filmmakers of the time to experiment with the medium itself could also be understood as their striving to expose the richness of the actual material, to filter out ideology and to purify discourse. “This compulsive, nominalist desire to tear away all hypostases, significations and projections, to reach the pure substance of things, the material dimension of ‛textʼ, was a reaction to the overly ideological socio/political situation on one hand, and, on the other, to the excessive mythologization of art.”[8]

Igor Zabel defines Stilinović’s art as “primary and fundamental art”, where the “production of a work consists of its material characteristic and the actual physical process of making”[9] Still, Zabel adds that the process of self-production is not by itself sufficient – it is included within the network of social exchange.

The Vernacular Speech of the City

“I am interested in the city milieu, the streets, the everyday life in the newspapers. Apart from culture i.e., art, they are my main interest. Rawness starts off from me personally and from the street. When I was a kid I would go by myself to the market place, walk around, watch… I was always interested in the way people were writing, how they were expressing themselves in the displays, writing up the prices in the market, at various events, flea markets. The manner they use to express themselves is actually signwriting. This is a concept that is particularly connected with the street. It’s close to me, as I always work by hand.”[10]

The beginnings of Stilinović’s experience with the “street” was usually associated with the Group of Six Artists, a group of avant-garde artists active in Zagreb since 1975. The group invented a term – exhibitions-actions –, which indicates a particular way of production and presentation of, and reception for, works of art occurring in a public space. 

His films had a revelatory effect, as they revealed his early curiosity and fascination with the city milieu: he would look around the street, notice something and then would do a structuring, taking note of restaurant adverts and signs, signs for car mechanics, hairdressers, sign panels in restaurants – and particularly the way the ads were structured. It was the actual design of the streets that interested him. Firstly, there is the phenomenon of sign writing, of simple and plain, almost rudimentary design; it is handwritten, without professional knowledge or background, and not formalized by official convention – being a sort of bricolage left open to improvisation. Secondly, there are shop windows that have been decorated by “professionals”, and also decorations for public holidays.

Stilinović registers with a camera all of these details as well as broader everyday life in the city. This is most evident in his films Run Away (1973) and Movements Towards (1974). He frames and records specific situations, perhaps banal ones – and transforms them into a film, into a future artistic context. Run Away (1973) opens with handwritten titles, and from the beginning Stilinović submerges us in the city, filming casual passers-by, the market, streets, cars and trams, though paying attention to different details. Lukasz Ronduda commented on the use of the accidental in such films of the time: “By making use of coincidence and a prior decision in their films, they sought to surpass previous ‛humanistic methods of production of meaning and to allow for a different perspective, transcending ‛human imagination and perception, rather than differing from them.”[11]

The city scenes are often ‘interrupted’ by the flying flag of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The flag is certainly one of the elements of the city milieu, but at the same time is an intrusion of the political, of power into everyday life.  Already in his films Stilinović is paying attention to the subtle mechanism of everyday life, revealing the socio-historical structures behind it; so the style of signs, boards, hoardings, their types of lettering, their execution, the flags, policemen are not aleatoric – they create a panoramic view of ideas and ideals, and their transformation. Street design and “the everyday” show also the specific nature of the time, “socialist consumption”, the first signs of capitalism. Stilinović is attentive to the rituals of the everyday and is intrigued by details like road signs, particularly those signs with arrows and different pictograms. At such moments Stilinovć’s filming is ironic and playful – and the result humorous and absurd. This is also evident in the scene depicting mannequins window-shopping, which almost give an impression of a dance macabre. In one of the first films, Panic, from 1971, a certain “existential hopelessness” predominates within a scene of a young man running away from invisible forces, something then interrupted by images of a XIX century theater curtain – representing the Croatian national revival – and a historic scene from the XVII century. This was a clear reference to the political situation at the time, known as the Croatian spring.

The film Walls, Coats, Shadows, (1975), filming different forms of walls, coverings and shadows, is definitely not exempt of irony in relation to a structuralist film.

In the film They Are Looking for You (1975) the artist applies both of his techniques and themes, i.e. experimentation with the medium itself and also the theme of the city. The split screen deconstructs the image, so in the upper part there are urban images of building facades and windows while in the lower one those of streets, cemeteries and parks. The film stands for a media city assemblage, and Stilinović saw such a collage as a principle that could be either orderly or disorderly.

The artist admired films made in a single take by such persons as Tomislav Gotovac, Mihovil Pansini and Vladimir Petek, all active in the cine club Zagreb in the ‘60s, but here his narration is different, being more fluid and personal, more ironic and light; and lightness here is to be understood in the sense that Italo Calvino gives it in the homonymous chapter of the American Lessons: “My working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language.”[12]

Primer 1,2,3 – A film to be read                                   

Words and language structure have always constituted a central part of Stilinović’s art as well as the visual representation of such structures. The physicality of the text, the type of writing, the material and the context in which the words appear are all constitutive parts of his poetics. The film Primer 1,2,3 is a good example also of the intertwining of such filmic, poetic and linguistic structures.

Primer 1,2,3 is structured into three parts, and the first one starts with an invitation to the spectator to read the text aloud, followed by close-ups of street signs, restaurants signs and hoardings, those of car mechanics, locksmiths, hairdressers, carpenters, and of sign panels in restaurants. In the second part, entitled Reader, Stilinović displays all of his interest in visual poetry, as words alter on the screen, creating different wordplays. The last part is a picture book where spectators are asked to read aloud the image and the text. Thus a fable takes shape.

This “film to be read” refers to a child when s/he begins to learn to read, and it notes in a very humorous way the problem of the relationship between the image and the word, of the semantics of words and the symbolical value of a visual sign. Consequently, spectators asked to read aloud the images on the screen are actually giving voice to an equivalent of the simple film images. Such a process, at the level of reading a picture book, was motivated by a conviction that people are preoccupied with metaphorical interpretations of a film’s image and that they are not able to differentiate the primary meaning inherent in an allegorical structure. Use of the word as a constitutive part of image dates back to early literal tendencies, where collage material is used instead of a drawing.

This film is in a more direct way of dealing with Stilinović’s future themes, the economy of production and the economy of language, with verbal irony and verbal cliché, with speech as a sensitive indicator of the social and political regime and occurring changes. Thus it is not surprising that one of the artist’s first books Watchers are Asked (1974) was created via taking photos of separate frames of a 16mm film and then linking them into a continuous whole and a recognizable accordion format. This book could be seen as a film using other means, as if a film had been deconstructed into its constitutive elements, becoming an independent work of art. 

I Have No Time

“Art is nothing – nothing is important; it’s a form of freedom that is outside the main system of society. Actually, within this system, which does not permit voids, this ‘nothing’ is very important. Everything has some purpose, but art does not. Except in me, as an artist…”[13]

In his two last films, Time 1 (1977) and Time 2 (1980), Stilinović films a clock, i.e. clockwise motion. In the meantime, in 1979 he would publish his book I Have No Time (1979). In this book the sentence is obsessively written and rewritten, as an ironic and serious comment on one of the most uttered phrases, particularly nowadays. The artist himself said that it is crude literature, as no literary considerations would enable one to see this book as actual literature.

In the same spirit, the two films depicting the passing of time made Gilles Deleuze comment that the main point of experimental film in its tendencies. Indeed, rather than being a specific genre or type of film, experimental film is about taking a certain stance; it’s an orientation that avoids film’s most standardized function of being a means for storytelling focusing instead on its primary capacity to make things visible, creating building blocks of perception. The concrete results can then, of course, be poetic or political, expressive or just narrative.

The result in Stilinović’s films touches upon the eternal and omnipresent issues of work and time, of “having” and “using” time, of empty time, and briefly on the myths of our civilisation. They follow the same line of the artist’s capital works like Praise of Laziness claiming that there is no art without laziness and Artist at Work (representing the artist himself lying in bed). These works, although produced in Socialist Yugoslavia, are still timeless in relation to social and economic issues and politics, even in present-day global capitalism.

From 1970-1975, Stilinović made around ten experimental films, always refusing to call his films “amateur”, opting instead for “experimental”. For technical and economical reasons, however, it was not possible to take a further step and to create a longer professional film, so he decided to quit.

Stilinović has been recently persuaded to restore his films and to screen them publicly, after 30 years. Being asked how he thought he looked on the films from today’s perspective, Stilinović waved his hand and, with an ironic smile, defined them as boring, adding that he now doesn’t know how to look at them or what to think; “I am hesitant about them,” he said. It is true that the films do not speak to us in the same way as they did 30 years ago which is something one needs to take into consideration as such films were produced in a very different political, social and cultural context.

Generally, the phenomena of experimental film, cinema clubs and film festivals in Socialist Yugoslavia were never systematically explored or evaluated outside the narrow discourse of amateur and experimental film – and were thus never institutionally assessed and evaluated in terms of broader national (art) history.

New interpretations and readings of experimental film consist not only in the interpretation of formal innovations negating media-specified coordinates they are supposed to go further, uncovering new connections in relation to original intentions and tendencies. “They speak about art’s own relation to power, the possibilities and impotence, the distance from the structures of dominance and its collaboration with them.” Besides this, Mladen Stilinović’s films build a unity with his artistic practices, confirming the status of his unique avant-garde artistic way of expression.  

The lack of there being a clear definition of his/these films is a sign of health, for as the American Fred Camper would say, paraphrasing Gertrude Stein’s quotation on applying modern to museum art “If you know exactly what avant-garde is and how to name it, it probably isn’t very avant-garde, right?!”

(New York, 2011)

[1] Mladen Stilinović in conversation with Piotr Rypson at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, 19.11.2010 within the exhibition of artist’ s books “I Have no Time”.

[2] Harak J-C (ed): “Lovers of Cinema : The First American Film Avant-Garde, 1919-1945”, Madison University of Wisconsin Press, 1995, p.18.” quoted in Stevan Vukovic, “Notes on Paradigms in Experimental Film in Socialist Yugoslavia”  in the catalogue This is All Movie: Experimental Film in Yugoslavia 1951-1991, exhibition curated by Bojana Piskur, Ana Janevski, Jurij Meden and Stevan Vuković, Museum of Modern Art Ljubljana, 2010.

[3] See Bojana Piskur and Jurij Meden “ A brief Introduction to Slovenian Experimental Flm” in the catalogue This is All Movie: Experimental Film in Yugoslavia 1951-1991, exhibition curated by Bojana Piskur, Ana Janevski, Jurij Meden and Stevan Vukovic, Museum of Modern Art Ljubljana, 2010.

[4] Maya Deren “Amateur Versus Professional”, Film Culture 39, winter 1965, p. 46.

[5] The cinemateque showed the films of Vertov, Godard, Antonioni, Bresson.The festival of experimental film was established in Zagreb 1963 GEFF  (Genre Experimnetal Film Festival) and was held every two years until 1969. In the first GEFF edition, a Belgrade-based Yugoslav Film Archive program was shown, as well as a selection of French, German, and American avant-garde offerings along with movies by Norman McLaren. In 1967, the guest star was Paul Adams Sitney, with a ten-hour program of the American avant-garde and the Fluxus Anthology; while in the last GEFF (with the theme of sexuality) the guests were Paul Morrissey, with films from the Warhol Workshop, and Carolee Schneemann, with her diary-sexual movies.

[6] Ana Janevski in conversation with Mladen Stilinović, Zagreb, October 2009, not published.

[7] For an accurate list of the most prominent organizations and events related to experimental film in the former Yugoslavia, see the catalogue “This is All Movie: Experimental Film in Yugoslavia 1951-1991”, exhibition curated by Bojana Piskur, Ana Janevski, Jurij Meden and Stevan Vuković, Museum of Modern Art Ljubljana, 2010.

[8] Lukasz Ronduda ”Pragmatism of the Margins” in As Soon As I Open my Eyes I See a Film/ Experiments in Yugoslav Art in the 60s and 70s, edited by Ana Janevski, Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, 2011.

[9] Igor Zabel, “A Short Walk Trough Mladen Stilinović’s Four Rooms” in Mladen Stilinović – Artist at Work 1973/1983, edited by Branka Stipančić and Alenka Gregorič, ŠKUC Gallery, Ljubljana, 2005

[10] Mladen Stilinović in conversation with Sabina Sabolović, ”I’ve got time” in Mladen Stilinović Artists’ Books, PlatformGaranti- Contemporary Art Center, Istanbul, Van Abbemuseum, Eidhoven, 2007.

[11] Lukasz Ronduda, ibid.

[12] Italo Calvino,  “Leggerezza” in Lezioni Americane, Oscar Mondadori, 1993

[13] Mladen Stilinović in conversation with Sabina Sabolović, ibid