'Film history has developed unevenly, so that in Europe today there are two distinct avant-gardes. The first can be identified loosely with the Co-op movement and includes most of the film-makers written about in this number of Studio International. The second would include film-makers such as Godard, Straub and Huillet, Hanoun, Jancso. Naturally there are points of contact between these two groups and common characteristics, but they also differ quite sharply in many respects : aesthetic assumptions, institutional framework, type of financial support, type of critical backing, historical and cultural origin.'
Peter Wollen THE TWO AVANT-GARDES in Studio International (Nov./Dec. 1975) (p.171).
In 1975 Studio International, the prestigious contemporary arts magazine devoted a special issue to 'The Avant-Garde Film in England and Europe'.
Printed in this edition were three formative texts of the '70's English Avant-Garde film movement. The first was David Curtis' 'English Avant-Garde Film: An Early Chronology', a personal history of the London Film-makers Co-Op, the second was 'Theory & Definition of Structural/Materialist Film', Peter Gidal's first developed formulation of his 'anti-illusionist' avant-garde practise and the third was an article by the influential film theorist and filmmaker Peter Wollen, 'The Two Avant - Gardes'.
This trinity of texts provided the '70's avant garde movement respectively with a history, a theory of practise and an agenda. Of these three, 'The Two Avant-Gardes' is the most widely read and influential, it is perhaps the most ubiquitous and influential text in the history of English avant-garde film/video.
Its trajectory winds through the work of the leading theorists of the avant-garde over three decades. It has been interpreted by Deke Dusinberre, Anne Cottringer , Laura Mulvey , Philip Drummond , Sylvia Harvey , Paul Willemen , J. Hoberman, Anne Friedberg and Sean Cubitt 23 amongst others. It has provided the basis for debate in numerous journals , appeared in critical anthologies24 and bibliographies, and is still used as a key document in art schools, colleges, universities and academic institutions where film and video is studied. As a twenty two year old undergraduate I was given a photocopy of it by the theorist and teacher Don Ranvaud on a course in avant-garde film at the University of East Anglia in 1983.
The attraction of Wollen's article as an educational tool is that:
a. It can be photocopied on five easily assembled A4 pages.
b. Its brevity makes it easy to read, explain and discuss in a class.
c. It is both a condensed history, a typology and a theoretical model; it is a beginner's guide and a means to generate discussion.
'The Two Avant-Gardes' is the thread I shall tug to unravel a mystery, in the following pages I'm going to analyse and integrate this text into its historical context, bearing in mind that in its history as a text, reproduced, referenced and read in academic institutions and Avant Garde circles this process was frequently absent.
For many film/media students, who whilst studying film history have had some introduction to Avant-Garde filmmaking, 'The Two Avant-Gardes' maybe the only theoretical work on the avant-garde they ever read or at least the only work they remember. When it was republished in Wollen's own anthology Readings and Writings: Semiotic Counter Strategies (1982) the line:
'.....and includes most of the film-makers written about in this number of Studio
(p 171. quoted above ) was omitted from the text. This republished version, by virtue of its wide availability rapidly replaced the Studio International version, and so isolated the text from even its original intertextual context. What follows therefore, whilst taking account of Wollen's other writings , and the writings of others about Wollen's article, is an analysis which takes 'The Two Avant-Gardes' as a closed and single text, which lives on endlessly renewed by each reader, by each generation of readers, who having grasped Wollen's charming principle can apply it to contemporary 'avant garde' and 'Independent'
film/video. And although it was written during the heroic phase of the English avant-garde/Independent film sector (1971-1980)25 , and in spite of the shift in theory/practise from class politics and 'Cine Structuralism' to 'Identity' politics and 'Postmodernism' in the 80's/90's , Wollen's article is still relevant, its as relevant now as it was in 1975. Al Rees in his History of Experimental Film and Video, refers to the article and claims that:
'...the dilemmas Wollen adduces still remain, adapted to new social pressures.' 26
The Lux Centre for Film, Video, and the Digital Arts regularly screens work referenced in the article 27 . Moreover my analysis is an attempt to explain how the Lux and the contemporary 'Independent' film/video sector are the product of the heroic phase of the English avant-garde film, the product of the debate outlined in the 'The Two Avant-Gardes' and are still locked into Wollen's riddle.
The mystery is this, why is Wollen's article so influential, since it was never