The Best Experimental Moving Image Works of 2020

by paul a.

It was Ken Jacobs who once floated the observation that “the avant-garde never starts on time,” but as the global events of 2020 began (and continued to) materialize, life also refused to play out in a timely manner. Contemporary existence has taken on the characteristics of stasis, but not complete inaction; within the creative industries, at least, the looming threat of complete economic collapse has pushed makers and distributors to locate new exhibition models — or, to be more accurate, it’s forced them to engage with internet-based business formats that have flourished for the past decade or so. With major international film festivals such as NYFF, TIFF, Cannes, and others having to play ball, many cinephiles felt that, with the general lack of pageantry associated with such festivities and the more than inadequate programming lineups, this year was a bit of a cinematic wash. Those of us who engage with the art form within the sphere of non-commercial cinema would respond accordingly: welcome to the club! 

This is a bit of a jest, but considering that experimental works at these noted festivals are placed within the ghetto of specialty programing and side-bar competitions — let alone ever having the chance of being shown publicly again, as most makers live precarious existences that heavily rely on the generosity of others to program their work for colleges and small art collectives  — these newer developments came less as a shock and more as the logical endpoint of a culture industry that values profit over artistry, products over people. Suffice to say, finding new ways to present filmic works to others has been a staple of the avant-garde film community for some time now; the axing of NYFF’s Views From The Avant-Garde in 2012 being the first keen reminder that things with no immediate commerciality don’t have a place at what essentially become trade shows. But this notion might suggest that experimental cinema exists in a realm outside of capital, which is far, far from the truth of the matter. Like everyone else, these makers have to find a way to put food on the table — so whether it be through minor festivals who are still invested in programing this work, or directly thought means such as their own Vimeo pages, their distribution models reflect a need for both sustainability and artistic freedom, a balancing act few are ever able to properly achieve. 

So a global pandemic notwithstanding, they continue forward with the same pertinacity toward their craft that was required well before the events of 2020. The works listed here — a wide range in terms of length, content, country, and ambition — represent those qualities that have made many (including myself) continue to passionately care about this niche sector of the art world, regardless of the seemingly inconsequential nature of the medium in the grander scheme of more popular affairs. After all, with everything else slowing down to a halt, it seems like, for once, dominant culture at large is ostensibly inconsequential as well. 

With that in mind, here’s a list of some of the more noteworthy experimental moving image works from the past year. Keep in mind this is just a list, not the list:

10. MESSAGE TO TRAP LORE ROSS 2.0 *DISS TRACK 2* (I WENT BAK IN TIME AN DESTROYED HIS CHILDHOOD) (Viper the Rapper, USA) // Edgelord (Dorian Electra & Weston Allen, USA)

Two internet based musicians take aim at their haters with the assistance of digital technologies. Viper the Rapper, the ultimate outsider artist (who’s found a way to release over 1500 albums during his extensive career) re-visits his previous diss against Youtuber Trap Lore Ross with a newfound moxy, inserting himself into JFK’s assasination to hammer the point home; Dorian Electra teams up with former internet laughing-stock Rebecca Black (who “turned your favorite fuckboy to a simp”) to fire back against anonymous 4chan trolls. Both videos are purposely gauche, borderline hideous to look at; their hilarity and potency only increase as a result. 

9. Vers Syracuse (Patrick Bokanowski, France) // Raw Power (Pierre-Luc Vaillancourt, Canada/Japan)

Human carcasses, stretched and contorted; two French-speakers [Special thanks to Neil Young for pointing out that “Vaillancourt’s a proud Québecois!” -Ed.] animate and dissociate the body until it becomes a mere effigy of its former self. Patrick Bokanowski warps reality until it blurs into abstraction; Pierre-Luc Vaillancourt abstracts reality until it blurs into the hyperreal. Both manifest kinetic energy that nearly eviscerates — and ultimately aesthetically informs — their images. 

8. Before the collapse of Mont Blanc (Jacques Perconte, France) // Carmen (Rob Feulner, Canada)

Digital collapse and video disintegration; the natural order interrupted by man’s penchant for destruction. Data as nature, nature as data. It’s through chaos that order is ultimately constructed, the mathematical perfection of mechanical reproduction tested and challenged by human desires. 

7. Apiyemiyekî? (Ana Vaz, Brazil/France/Netherlands/Portugal)

A diary film composed of found footage, hand drawings, and lingering trauma; Ana Vaz interrogates the construction of BR-174 — a Brazilian federal highway that was built on stolen indigenous land — with first-hand documents forgotten by time, layering them over the never-ending trek of paved concrete to place these two periods of time in direct conversation with one another. It’s reality versus representation, the cries of those subjugated etched onto crude drawings that are no longer static artifacts. 

6. Untitled (Takashi Makino, Japan) // There must be some kind of way out of here (Rainer Kohlberger, Austria)

The end of the world, imagined by two artists who have pushed digital images to their breaking point in order to produce near cataclysmic results. Takashi Makino depicts the microscopic as a seismic event, while Rainer Kohlberger repurposes the cathartic nature of the disaster film into an animated technicolor barrage. Both are uncompromising in their intense visions of rapture, conveying and accelerating the ephemerality of the awe-inspiring; for works that both premiered online, they’re grand enough to demand a theatrical viewing experience. 

5. Fauna (Nicolás Pereda, Canada/Mexico)

A work of constant metamorphosis, one that modulates audience expectations and overall structural gambit, while still keeping an aesthetic and tonal consistency. We open on a tale of young love, one that gradually transforms into one of conflicting national identity — before dropping all pretense and shifting into something entirely different, if equally wry, for its final third. No spoilers here, as the process of watching this tale unravel in the most unusual of ways has its own joys, but my colleague Lawrence Garcia put it best (and simply) about the project’s never-ending restlessness: “Fauna offers the thrill of creative evolution.”

4. Progressive Touch (Michael Portnoy, Austria/Netherlands/USA)

The funniest title on this list, while also the most blatantly error-otic. It’s humorous in a manic way, like when one starts laughing for no reason and can’t contain one’s self; it’s salacious by way of… well, more “explicit” means. Michael Portnoy’s two-channel installation piece certainly has enough dumbass energy radiating from it’s bombastic sound design and goofy choreography — but more importantly, it acknowledges that sometimes, we need an excuse for the most primal of excretory response, laughter or cum permitted. 

3. Circumstantial Pleasures (Lewis Klahr, USA) // Her Socialist Smile (John Gianvito, USA)

The two most radically political works of the year, existing on opposite sides of an affectual spectrum. John Gianvito highlights the past extraordinary work of an individual against a broken political system; Lewis Klahr depicts a modern world that’s extraordinarily not been destroyed by a broken economic system. Further writings on both can be found here and here

2. Substance Without Science (Daniel Barnett, USA) 

One doesn’t simply watch a motion picture by Daniel Barnett — one is borderline assaulted by them. Continuing with the aggressive editing stylings Barnett has been developing since 1973, the second in his Sweet Dreamers trilogy (a sequel to the appropriately titled Science Without Substance) besieges viewers with a type of digi-maximalist cinema akin to the works of R. Bruce Elder. One could attempt to decipher each image as it flies across the screen, to try and relieve any feelings of confusion or befuddlement; but as we’re reminded throughout about such trivialities: “don’t worry.” Best to bask in the glory of sensorial overload first, ask any remaining questions after. 

1. Movie That Invites Pausing (Ken Jacobs, USA) // Labor of Love (Sylvia Schedelbauer, Germany)

Two different artists, from two different generations, continents, and aesthetic styles, each ask us to go on a journey. Not physically, but cognitively; ones that function as transcendental occurrences, culminating with an epiphany that’s similar to a mental breakthrough. They use abstracted imagery to awaken something deeper inside all of us, to ask us to look past our conceptions of the cinematic apparatus as a means for pure verbal logic. They demonstrate, on their own unique terms, that cinema’s innate qualities provide the medium the best means to serve as the arts’ greatest conduit for meaning formation. In a tribute to his late mentor, famed sculptor Hans Hofmann, Ken Jacobs constructs and demolishes textures with (as he calls it) “voluptuous depth” while also — with his titular invitation to pause — radically changing how we interact with the moving image. Sylvia Schedelbauer, by invoking new age philosophical notions regarding metaphysical existence, evokes an experience — one I can not yet lay claim to — found somewhere in the brief interim between consciousness and death. They both accomplish what seems like the most basic (while also being the most difficult) of goals for experimental cinema: to make us see differently. After viewing both, it’s difficult to imagine seeing the world in quite the same way ever again.

paul a. is a New York based lifeform who enjoys writing about experimental cinema, rap music, and anything else that tickles his fancy. You can find him on letterboxd, where he spends far too much of his free time, or catch up with his writing via In Review Online and MUBI Notebook.

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