Herb Shellenberger

By Edwin Rostron

Still from You’re Not Real Pretty But You’re Mine… by Frank Mouris, 1968

Herb Shellenberger is an independent curator with a wide interest in the many different forms of experimental moving image. His programmes have provided audiences with opportunities to see numerous extraordinary and rarely-screened works, ranging from ‘Radical Sex Education Films‘ to ‘Forgotten American Experimental Films in the LUX Collection‘ to ‘Unseen Post-Punk Videos by Women’. Herb’s upcoming weekend of film programmes at Tate, ‘Independent Frames‘ (Feb 17-19), focuses on American experimental animation in the 1970s and 1980s, and promises to be a revelatory and important event.

The programme is beautifully curated, representing a broad range of work whilst creating space for multiple films by artists such as Mary Beams, Paul Glabicki, Suzan Pitt and Robert Russett. Herb’s knowledge and insight into this area is informed by significant research, and he is showing most of the titles on 16mm and 35mm prints (with a number of new restorations), which many viewers won’t have previously seen beyond a pixelated video online, if at all. That this work has become so difficult to access is undoubtedly part of its attraction; the event launches Tate Film’s 2017 ‘Counter-Histories’ programme and can be seen as part of a wider interest in incorporating marginalised and overlooked work into a contemporary art context. Whether it marks a wider reappraisal and greater visibility of historical experimental animation remains to be seen, but for now this treasure trove is enough in itself. Herb is to be congratulated for providing us with a hugely exciting programme of work from what was a real golden period for the art form.

I caught up with Herb via email to discuss ‘Independent Frames’, his other curatorial work and his thoughts on experimental animation.

Still from Voices by Joanna Priestley, 1985

EoF: What is your background and how did you get into curatorial work? 

HS: During my undergraduate studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, I completed art history and philosophy degrees. After graduating, I began to work at International House Philadelphia, a non-profit center for film and moving image art. My colleagues and boss eventually provided some some opportunities for me to start curating and initially I was programming out of films that I could access for free, the best collection of which I found to be the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. Doing these first programs I curated out of their collection, I programmed a lot of films blind and saw films by artists like Sally Cruikshank, Suzan Pitt, Yoji Kuri and Pat O’Neill on 16mm for the first time. In the past seven years, I’ve continued my practice as an independent curator putting together screenings, film series and other projects at DIY spaces, film festivals, cinematheques and museums in several countries.

EoF: What are some of the projects you have been involved with that have meant the most to you?

HS: In 2013, I put together the first retrospective of the films of Jonas Mekas to happen in Philadelphia since the 1970s. We held several screenings at International House Philadelphia over the course of a year and it led to a (very non-academic) symposium on Jonas’s life and work with film critic Amy Taubin, filmmaker Jackie Raynal, Ed Halter of Light Industry and artist/archivist Andrew Lampert. A transcript of this conversation was published in the catalog Jonas Mekas: The Fluxus Wall by BOZAR in Brussels. It was an excellent experience to work with Jonas Mekas, one of my favorite artists and a living encyclopedia of film and art.

Another project that felt like a landmark for me was “Radical Sex Education Films from San Francisco’s Multi-Media Resource Center,” a research and screening project in 2014 looking at a series of avant-garde sex education films that were produced by a company who also distributed films by artists like Barbara Hammer, Scott Bartlett and James Broughton to sex therapists and educators. This was original research and screenings were held at Light Industry in Brooklyn, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco and International House Philadelphia, who also published an article I wrote on the Multi-Media Resource Center films in the catalog for Free to Love: The Cinema of the Sexual Revolution.

Trailer for CAVE GIRLS + TRASHY FASHIONS: Unseen Post-Punk Videos by Women
curated by Herb Shellenberger

Finally, my current 2016-17 project “Cave Girls + Trashy Fashions: Unseen Post-Punk Videos by Women” has been very exciting. I put together a video mixtape of videos that were digitized as part of the XFR STN digitization project at the New Museum in 2013. The 70-minute screening uses post-punk as a lens through which to consider video art, performance documentation or experiments by women that aren’t explicitly music-based but might be more about fashion, performance art, film and so on. Since the videos have been shared on the Internet Archive with free public performance rights, it’s very easy to organize screenings and the program has shown in Baltimore, Berlin, New York, Philadelphia and Taipei. It’s been a good experience to work with local curators who know the best way to organize the screening for their space and audience, whether it’s with a panel discussion, as part of a gig with bands and DJs, or anything else.

Still from Diagram Film by Paul Glabicki, 1978

EoF: How did the upcoming ‘Independent Frames’ programme at Tate come about?

HS: “Independent Frames” developed out of informal conversations I’ve had over the past years with Andrea Lissoni, Senior Film Curator at Tate Modern. I’ve been a big fan of the Tate Film program, looking at it regularly before moving to London over the years when Stuart Comer was curating there and attending many programs since 2014 that George Clark and Andrea Lissoni have curated. Two series in particular, “If Arte Povera was Pop: Artists’ and Experimental Cinema in Italy 1960s–1970s” and “Throwing Shadows: Japanese Expanded Cinema in the Time of Pop” were very exciting events which I attended in their entirety and provided a model to work under. These series were meant as large-scale introductions to the work of a number of artists and were both developed with curators outside of the organization: Julian Ross and Go Hirasawa for “Throwing Shadows” and AnnaMaria Licciardello and Sergio Toffetti for “If Arte Povera was Pop.” Once Carly Whitefield was hired as Assistant Film Curator at Tate Modern in early 2016, our conversations began in more detail and the team at Tate Film have been extremely supportive all along the way.

Still from Quasi at the Quackadero by Sally Cruikshank, 1975

EoF: What is it that has particularly interested you in independent and experimental animation? What is it about work made in the 1970s-1980s that particularly appeals to you? What was your intention with the programme and did that change as you put it together?

HS: I’ve always been a fan of animation and am still as fascinated with Looney Tunes as I was when I was a child. But discovering the works of artists like Yoji Kuri, Len Lye or Suzan Pitt was very exciting and set me on a course to explore different types, techniques and applications of animation. “Experimental film” or “moving image” can take a million different forms but in the end it comes down to the vision of an artist or group, and that applies to these types of independent, experimental animations as well. Artist animators’ works are as stylized and individualistic as any video artist or experimental filmmaker, perhaps even moreso because of the degree to which they labored over each frame in a very slow and deliberate way.

As I researched further on experimental animators over the years, it became clear that there was much more information and resources available for artists like Norman McLaren, Robert Breer or Mary Ellen Bute than the artists of the 1970s and 1980s by comparison. In my opinion, the late 1960s and early 1970s was the period when a multitude of American artists were really digging into animation as a means of personal expression. There was a real explosion of creative animation during this period and it also had an outlet on television and home video in a way that experimental film did not. And there are just so many gems that are very rarely shown, for the most part made by artists who are still quite accessible and enthusiastic about sharing their works.

My intention with this program was to create a critical survey of the artists and films from this period, utilizing the resources that Tate Film have to create the most ideal presentation of these works in an international setting. Nearly all the films are being shown from 16mm or 35mm prints, many of those new or recent restorations, and showing these works properly creates the best conditions for appreciating their many peculiarities and subtleties.

Still from Escalation by Ward Kimball, 1968

EoF: Can you talk a bit about the different programmes in ‘Independent Frames’ and some of your personal highlights?

HS: I’ve organized the series into five different programs that have focused these works thematically, rather than by artist or animation technique. As a result, some artists have films in multiple screenings across the series. In total, there are 51 films in the series, the longest Suzan Pitt’s Asparagus (20 minutes) and the shortest Bruce Conner’s Ten Second Film. I believe the 16mm and 35mm prints, and a few digital files, are coming from something like 18 different film distributors, archives and individuals. So it’s been quite a challenge to organize.

The series starts with ‘Exploded View,’ thinking about psychedelia and spectacle in some of the earlier works in this period. Included in this program are very rare prints of New York underground artists Fred Mogubgub and Irene Duga. Irra and Don Duga’s films blew me away when I checked them out at the Film-Makers’ Coop on a research trip in 2015 and Mogubgub was a very wild pop artist whose works are more often talked about than seen properly. We’ve tracked down one of the last remaining prints of his film The Pop Show. This screening also features a new restoration by the Yale Film Study Center of one of Frank Mouris’s student films, as well as a relatively unknown experiment in 3-D made by Paul Sharits which has been restored by Anthology Film Archives.

The second program ‘Shape and Structure’ will feature Academy Film Archive restorations of two of Robert Russett’s amazing films, Primary Stimulus and Neuron. Russett’s films are not well known though he is more renown for co-authoring Experimental Animation: Origins of a New Art (1976/1988) with Cecile Starr as well as his excellent follow-up book Hyperanimation: Digital Images and Virtual Worlds (2009). There are also two great 16mm prints of Paul Glabicki’s visual-philosophical symphonies, which really need to be seen on film to appreciate the impact of their handmade construction. As well, an important early film by Peter Rose, a filmmaker I hold in high esteem not only because of his inventive work but also because he is the most important experimental filmmaker from my home base of Philadelphia.

Still from Crocus by Suzan Pitt, 1971

Bodymania”, the third screening in the series, comes directly from my graduate dissertation at Central Saint Martins and LUX which focused on morphing bodies in erotic animations by Mary Beams, Lisa Crafts and Suzan Pitt. These are three monumental artists in my opinion who are criminally overlooked for their radical contributions to animation and visual culture. Mary Beams’ tender, intimate films are rarely screened, and I’m very happy to show four of them in this series. Lisa Crafts’ Desire Pie is a masterful and humorous work and Suzan Pitt’s Asparagus is probably the biggest triumph (and the work constructed over the longest period of time) of all the work in this series. The 35mm restoration by Academy Film Archive’s Mark Toscano is a thing of beauty and we’re excited that Suzan will join us via Skype for a post-screening discussion.

The fourth program “Introspection” is an opportunity to highlight a number of other artists and important works especially from the 1980s including Joanna Priestley, Karen Aqua, Sky David and Ayoka Chenzira, whose hilarious Hair Piece: A Film for Nappy-Headed People is a highlight from this era as an animation on identity by an artist of color. There will also be excellent restorations of Frank and Caroline Mouris’s Frank Film and Gary Beydler’s Hand Held Day, two very different forms of self-reflection.

Finally, “Underground Cartoons” tries to show that these artists weren’t simply anti-conventional animation by any means, rather they worked with and enhanced some aspects of commercial animation in their personal creations. The films of George Griffin and Sally Cruikshank are two highlights here, and the British Film Institute have provided a new 35mm print of Cruikshank’s Quasi at the Quackadero. But equally exciting is the mysterious United States government propaganda film Curious Alice, which somewhat backfires on its anti-drug message by making a film that is extremely trippy. And James Duesing’s Tugging the Worm is a surprisingly fresh film, his early pre-computer works feel very prescient in the age of Adult Swim and emotionally complex animation that is consumed by larger audiences. Sally Cruikshank will join us after the screening for a discussion via Skype as well.

Still from Odalisque by Maureen Selwood, 1980

EoF: What were some of the films you couldn’t include that you would have liked to?

HS: I was able to fit 51 films and 35 artists into this series but due to space or thematic curating it wasn’t possible to show work by all the artists that I’m interested in from this period. Some of these include Jane Aaron, Ken Brown, Larry Cuba, David Ehrlich, James Gore, David Haxton, Al Jarnow, Daina Krumins, Sara Petty or someone like Carmen D’Avino, who worked in a slightly earlier period but whose films are amazing and not shown enough. There are other artists whose works I just haven’t had access to yet like Richard Protovin (two of his films were recently shown at MoMA), Christine Panushka or Candy Kugel. That said, even among artists who were curated into the five programs it would have been great to include more works by any of them.

There were several films that I had originally programmed for the series that weren’t available for various reasons: Lillian Schwartz’s films, Donald Fox’s Omega, Harry Smith’s Oz: The Tin Woodman’s Dream, Lee Savage and Milton Glazer’s short Mickey Mouse in Vietnam and the films of Vince Collins. I hope to present this series elsewhere and hope that the lineup can be somewhat flexible to include any of these rare films if they do become available for screenings.

EoF: Do you feel the same kind of enthusiasm for contemporary experimental animation work? Are there any current artists in this area whose work excites you?

HS: I wouldn’t say that I have the same kind of enthusiasm for contemporary experimental animation but there are many artists whose work I’m very interested in. I think experimental or artist animation today has become even more pluralistic than this period I’ve focused on in the 1970s and 1980s and it’s hard to even consider it as its own discipline, since it bleeds into everything. This can be illustrated by thinking about the diverse practices of animation among even a very small selection of artists like Salise Hughes, Jodie Mack, Kelly Gallagher, Ian Cheng, Jessie Mott, Peter Burr, Alexander Stewart and Lilli Carré, Karen Yasinsky, Steven Woloshen, Jacolby Satterwhite and Cory Arcangel, all of whom are producing work that pushes the definitions of animation outwards.

Excerpt from Pattern Language by Peter Burr (2017)

EoF: Do you have any thoughts on the current status / understanding / recognition of animation as an artform?

HS: I’m not a theorist but I do think there’s more interest than ever in animation. Animation studies has become a rich field and there are thinkers doing interesting things on animation with regards to pre-cinema, technology, visual art and film analysis. But sometimes I’m wary of approaches that seem to instrumentalize animation as functional, rather than ones that actually take a look at work itself to think about what it is and what it does. Radar, machine vision and all of these other functions are interesting interpretations of how animation functions in our digital society but there are still many artists and works that are neglected and misunderstood, despite the gains in the field of animation studies and the increased access to works digitally.

That’s why I think it’s important to actually show the works of experimental animators as I’m doing here, or as do Edge of Frame, Eyeworks and several other outlets. There also needs to be a sensitivity towards the ways that artists approach animation which is distinctly different from more industrial and short narrative type work. This becomes especially confusing in the era of near-total digital production of animation but the distinctions between form, content, exhibition and intention with regards to artist animation are still fascinating and link the works being made today in a variety of media to those that have been made in decades before, including the works which I’ve highlighted in this series on American artist animation during the 1970s and 1980s.

EoF: Are there any particular organisations or individuals whose work (curatorially or beyond) has inspired or informed your own approach?

HS: My foundational influences always come down to the film programming of Amos Vogel through Cinema 16 and especially Film as a Subversive Art, David Bienstock and John Hanhardt of the Whitney’s “New American Filmmakers” series during the 1970s and 1980s, the writing and curating of Nicole Brenez and the film criticism of Jonathan Rosenbaum and Jonas Mekas.

Film as a Subversive Art: Amos Vogel and Cinema 16 by Paul Cronin, 2004

Among colleagues whose work pushes me to do my best, Ed Halter and Thomas Beard of Light Industry always provide a challenging and diverse slate of screenings in Brooklyn. Carolyn Lazard is a valuable writer, artist and curator whose work is at once sensitive, polemical and accessible. Soda_Jerk flatten high and low culture binaries in their challenging and hilarious videos, installations and performances. The White Pube are always coming up with new and interesting ways to write and think about art while injecting their winning personalities. I would be remiss to not acknowledge the long term support of my colleagues Jesse Pires and Robert Cargni of International House Philadelphia, who really set me on the course I’ve been on with their programming that I benefited from as both a viewer and co-organizer over the years. The list could go on…

EoF: Can you tell us about any other upcoming projects you are involved in?

HS: I’ll be working on more presentations of both ‘Independent Frames’ and ‘Cave Girls + Trashy Fashions.’ I will also continue a longer term research project on the artist and animator Peter Foldes, as well as a research, writing and screening project jointly considering the films of Jean Vigo and Ron Rice. Over the next years, I hope to develop a larger body of research and practice relating to curating and exhibiting artist moving image online, thinking about the potential that digital space provides for screenings and exhibitions, live performances and discussions, as well as knowledge production in this area. I’ll also be looking for a full-time, sustainable job in London… wish me luck!

Still from Make Me Psychic by Sally Cruikshank, 1978

©2017 Edwin Rostron