Cinematic Laboratories: The Art of Experimentation in the Postwar Avant-Garde

Date of Award

Spring 2022

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


History of Art

First Advisor

Andrew, Dudley


This dissertation examines the meaning of artistic “experimentation” within global avant-garde cinema circles from 1958 until 1980. Much to the chagrin of the media artists and filmmakers whom historians have classified as “experimenters,” the term has often described works that appear to be unfinished, improvisational, or slapdash. However, the films made by Stan Brakhage, Kurt Kren, Peter Kubelka, Paul Sharits, Hollis Frampton, and Iimura Takahiko underscore the conceptual similarities between aesthetic and laboratory practices. Though many of their works are non-narrative and abstract, they execute them with a level of precision and a systematic rigor that we associate with the scientific method. Their innovative uses of montage, lyrical cinematography, computer algorithms, closed-circuit video feeds, nascent computing platforms, and mathematical logic test the limits of human communication and perception. Spanning the United States, Austria, and Japan, this interconnected constellation of filmmakers experimented with the cinematic apparatus in order to reflect upon several prevailing technoscientific inquiries of their era, particularly the relationships between information and meaning, body and technology, and language and image. The four chapters exemplify how these diverse aesthetic practices were informed by parallel discourses in cybernetics, systems theory, perceptual psychology, and linguistics. The dissertation also reveals how film festivals, ciné-clubs, museum exhibitions, and academic institutions have opened new corridors of trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific exchange. The EXPRMNTL competition organized by the Royal Belgian Film Archive on the site of the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels, is positioned as a seminal event that distinguished postwar experimental cinema from the legacy of the historical avant-garde.

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