Expansion and openness


Expansion and openness (2000-2007)
by Frédérique Devaux

In the early 2000s, a number of filmmakers frequent L’Abominable, an alternative space located in Asnières. Experiment film is gaining momentum. The Cinémathèque Française dedicates a large retrospective to experimental filmmakers, regardless of form and period. The teaching of these rather discordant aesthetics give rise to a new generation of filmmakers who rub shoulders with the so-called “earlier generation” in many different screenings, and quite naturally at production stage in L’Abominable.

Without going too deeply into what basically motivated each filmmaker, certain factors can be seen to explain the interest each one had in this alternative space, the transmission of its know-how that is accessible to all, and its philosophy, that is best summed up by the slogan “Do it Yourself”.

Do it yourself

A more and more costly industry can no longer cater for non-standardized processing or for printing  “mistreated” film, sometimes made up of several layers of film combined. Rarely is it possible to have Super 8 film blown up to 16mm, and the use of this “non-professional” format is almost non-existent in the industry: it is difficult if not impossible to obtain a color timing to suit the filmmaker’s wishes. In short, the procedures that are certainly more complicated than just a basic printing process, but would always be carried out by a willing technician who would “look after” your film, have disappeared little by little to the profit of capital “P”: profit. The film processing industry no longer has time for these filmmakers renowned for never following the rules or contributing to the profit of the remaining processing laboratories.

The experimental filmmakers react against the massive digital onslaught by appropriating both filming and processing equipment. They remain sensitive to quality of film, and to the time it takes to develop its sculptural possibilities. Crafting their lives and their work, they take in hand each step of the production of their films, developing their own custom effects that are often highly original and go far beyond the pre-programmed and readily available digital ones. They need to feel their way, seek out, consider, recommence, manipulate, feel, reconsider, get inside the material and find an approach, then strip down, do battle with the grain, calculate the right stop, even edit on the printer, and slow down… Digital excludes all the medium’s material qualities and acts according to a hidden, complex set of calculations, unable to be exploited by artists lacking computer skills.

Experimentation has become an entity devoid of character, stripped of Benjamin’s famous “aura”, and video, now omnipresent, systematically buries film in a country typically resistant to any innovation. Film-on-film disappeared, and is no longer seen to be in the same league as “fine art” or rather beauty-art, or any other film prototype for that matter of which it might be a close cousin. L’Abominable would preserve a transmissible knowledge and know-how in opposition to plug-and-play formats; the uniformity of digital tools achieving standardized products complete with smooth images lacking any warmth.

In addition to this, there is the solitude of each individual alone in front of the screen; L’Abominable on the other hand, offers a place for the exchange of skills and competencies, knowledge and ideas, a place where patience and the notion of feeling one’s own way reigns. All practices and processes used in experimental filmmaking are available in a space large enough to accommodate several artists at once. I say “artists” and not just filmmakers, as part of what’s at stake relies upon this on-going difference which constitutes a clash of interests very similar to the rise of conceptual art and the resulting decline of representational art – Duchamp’s peinture rétinienne.

Those who produce their work at L’Abominable discover, create and develop their own means of expression, way of editing and (r)evolution in style or in the use of medium. Far from standardization and pre-programmed calculations, they work with time – for their own experimentation, of course. Equally, they forge, carve out and put time to the test in direct contact with the film.  In the work space, one person may be working image by image with the optical printer, another processing analogue views in the darkroom, a third cleaning up the sound on a computer, while at the same time an artist from further afield produces the soundtrack tape for her next film and yet another strikes a print after spending a lot of time color timing. In 2003, L’Abo was equipped with a 35mm printer and then a video to 16mm device in 2005, which opened up new horizons for mixing different medias. That same year, it became possible to machine process both 16 and 35mm film.

L’Abo has set up a system in which people collaborate and exchange which has enabled newcomers to work alongside and be helped by an experienced person. This solidarity also functions at a financial level with members only paying for what they use (equipment, film, assistance) without any added cost going to L’Abominable itself, which has a stock of chemicals, different film, editing tape and so on. And so experimental filmmakers, who receive little of no recognition from official channels, have been able to produce their own film works and have understood the great value and interest in  such a structure’s fair system. Moreover, 16mm has become the most commonly used format by the artists and Super 8 film, now more difficult to project due to the lack of suitable projectors, has often been transferred to 16mm film, a process easy handled at L’Abominable.

In the darkroom anyone can reveal the latent image contained in brown Super 8 film – what a miracle of chemistry! Only Kodachrome preciously guards its developing secrets and must be sent to the supplier for processing. L’Abominable has progressively acquired equipment for processing 16mm negative film and for striking one’s own workprint before adding the sound. Equally, the film can be edited at the table and the sound synchronized. In sum, each person is fully in charge of the production of his or her own work, and controls the content of each photogram, the inspiration of each image and the rhythm of each sequence.


On November 16th 2002, the Ciné 104 in Pantin invited L’Abominable to table the manifesto Experimental? C’est pas mon genre, signed by 30 or so alternative production and diffusion structures. The idea of this manifesto had germinated at L’Abominable, and was drafted over the weeks prior to this event by experimental film artists and organizers, including some L’Abo members. The importance of the term experimental was stressed as much in its title as in its text. Its occurrence (24 times) reflected the dynamism of this different cinema in general and more particularly in its place at L’Abominable.

All the implicit reasons I’ve just mentioned: the particular context at the beginning of the new century where new ways of filming and looking at film became apparent – notably loft-story reality-style TV – gave birth to new reflections and offered a glimpse of certain solutions and proposals contained in the manifesto’s rousing text, which could help develop a dialogue between experimental filmmakers and official bodies.

We sought the recognition of producers in associative form, support for collective workshops, and a review of policy to access funding for projects. In response to this last point, the CNC quickly included experimental film in “funding prior to production”. An initial application may be made directly by the filmmaker without going through production, a board of “connoisseurs” decide, without the traditional script/shooting script, by viewing the preliminary work and by the quality and viability of the submitted project. Several L’Abominable members, in particular through Les Productions Aléatoires, received CNC funding which enabled them greater freedom when undertaking their projects. L’Abo suggested these artists pay a higher contribution for the duration of the project than the non-funded members, to go towards maintaining the space.

The response was negative for other demands such as the recognition of production associations, in spite of regular meetings with the CNC. Even as I write, L’Abominable and the distribution cooperative Light Cone continue surviving on lean budgets.

Questionings and opening up

At each meeting we discuss incoming requests.

It is evident that none of us wanted L’Abominable to become a service provider. It is a place for expression and creation, with a cross-flow of energy. Each person feels responsible for the space and what happens there, while respecting each other’s different artistic approaches, free of time constraints and the profitability of their individual efforts.

Although a close-knit group, proven as much in general meetings as in other impromptu engagements, we the board members lacked the necessary energy to organize out-of-house screenings of L’Abominable films, which probably explains the lack of “cartes-blanches” or other kinds of screening programs during that period, otherwise flourishing with all sorts of openings.

Children’s workshops were a regular feature at the time and sometimes produced a few nice surprises. The number of requests for film processing and printing grew year by year (joining was possible after undertaking an initiation day training). Between 2002 and 2007, between 15 and 20 films were made each year, of lengths varying from a few minutes to several hours, covering very different styles although most were of an experimental bent.  Over this 5-year period, around sixty member filmmakers regularly renewed their subscriptions and to this number can be added approximately twenty new subscriptions per year, making around 200 filmmakers passing through L’Abo, some only briefly and others more permanently. During this period with no real funding, there were no full-time employees, and even if the CNC funding helped pay for some part-time work, the team was made up mainly of volunteers.

The filmmakers involved in L’Abominable are more and more present at festivals. “Hand made” copies are in circulation: Holland (Rotterdam Film Festival…), Switzerland (Nyon, Vidéo Ex…), in Finland (Avanto in Helsinki), Germany (Forum Berlinale), Canada (Media City in Ontario), Anthology Film Archives in New York and in France (Lyon, Paris, Avignon, Clermont-Ferrand, Bobigny …) amongst others. Some of these receive awards and their works enrich distribution cooperatives’ collections, primarily Light Cone and also at Collectif Jeune Cinéma. This reinvigorates and broadens exchange between these distribution networks and L’Abominable.

We entertain the idea of a space where a program of screenings of all forms of cinema could be held. The Le Barbizon cinema closed down in 1978, was then a squat and its occupants risked expulsion for these premises. We support the efforts of the Les Amis de Tolbiac association to refurbish this cinema and work towards developing a theatre dedicated to screening “hardly shown” works. In November and December 2003 we presented screenings there under the title that speaks for itself, L’Abominable soutient le Barbizon.

In 2005, L’Abominable collaborates in the 3rd Rencontres des Labos at Nova in Brussels after having been present at the previous two in Geneva in 1997 and Grenoble in 2000. We take part in several discussions on the question of making a network of expertise and knowledge available of the various labs springing up all around the world, especially in Europe. In the wake, we participate in setting up the filmlabs.org site, bringing visibility to the network.

From October 2006 to October 2007, we celebrate L’Abominable’s tenth anniversary at the Ciné 104  in Pantin, with ten film screenings and a weekend of performances and installations at the Anis Gras in Arcueil. We make sure all the artists that had participated in L’Abominable were represented.

Over these years, L’Abominable has become for some, a reference point for film-on-film maniacs, this now outmoded medium overshadowed by the virtual image, while for many others it’s a pillar of persistence, effort and more or less underground creation in which everyone feels free to search out an otherness and difference and to reflect (themselves) in the silver mirror and in artistic exploration.


Translation : Wayn Malm