The Bentson Critical Group (BCG) is a monthly discussion forum that explores ideas around the history and contemporary development of artists’ moving image practice. Hosted by the Walker Art Center since 2015, the BCG is comprised of academics, programmers, and artists who work with moving image in the Twin Cities, and who have begun to present their research and discussion via a series of curated film programs in the Walker Mediatheque. The founder of the BCG, the Walker’s Bentson Moving Image Scholar, Mason Leaver-Yap, describes the origins of this group and the interlinked conditions and ambitions that informed its structure.
On Saturday February 25, at 7 pm in the Mediatheque, a selection of BCG members will take part in a screening and open discussion in relation to the artistic practice of Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers. The event “…I’m not a filmmaker,” a panel discussion, is an opportunity for the group to share ideas, questions, practice, and scholarship that they have been investigating in the monthly forum with a wider public audience.
The medium of artists’ moving image is intrinsically relational and networked. It continually seeks out other people, both in terms of resources for its production as well as its exhibition and distribution. Conversations (which are themselves another form of distribution) that naturally flow in and around such work are surely one of the greatest strengths of the medium. But following, instigating, and sustaining such dialogue—not simply around individual videos, films, or installations, but also an ongoing critical approach to the medium as a whole—is still something that an art institution must endeavor to engage with and make public.
The formal and highly institutionalized formats of a public symposium, panel debate, or Q&A session have useful but salient limits to conversation. Often, these formats self-select knowledge (where an art organization gets to choose works and speakers on behalf of a presumed audience—and often prioritize speakers’ commentary over audience response). These forums, by dint of their public nature, also miss out on more intimate dialogue: that well-observed comment that we hear from a friend as we exit the cinema, what we discuss over a coffee after seeing an exhibition together, the conversation shared in the back of a cab about what should be shown more, less, better at the Walker.
How, then, does a single curator, programmer or scholar (perhaps seated upstairs in an office, or else working remotely from Europe) listen and usefully react to the casual but well-informed conversations that are already taking place inside of the Walker cinema, galleries, and café, as well as beyond its walls? And how does the Walker recognize and foster these intimacies without being overly prescriptive and generic in its programming? These were some of the first and perhaps most urgent questions that emerged when I was asked to make recommendations on how to best open up the Walker’s moving image holdings, the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection, to a wider audience.
Aware that the Twin Cities has long housed a thriving and highly active contemporary art community—whose work with the moving image continues to span nonprofit film festivals and monthly cinema screenings, as well as a number of art college courses dedicated to and including modules in film and video—it was clear that the Walker didn’t need to instigate a conversation but find a way of listening to what was already there. We knew students already had their own discursive forums as part of their studies, but what programs were serving those teaching students, programming the film festivals, and showing their work within the city?
In the fall of 2014, during an academics and educator’s symposium, the Walker Moving Image department put out an open call to artists, programmers, and educators (essentially all those no longer in full-time education). Under the heading of “The Bentson Critical Group,” the invitation announced the Walker’s intention to host a peer-led discussion and screening group that would meet at the Walker once a month to explore ideas around moving image practice. As a material basis for discussion, we offered to give the group access to the Bentson Collection to screen in the Walker Mediatheque. The group was not under pressure to work towards any single outcome, though we were open to finding ways that the group could publish its ideas and present its projects for an audience. The only remit of the BCG was to find ways of talking across and circumventing the usually siloed institutional knowledges and skills around moving image, and share ideas across a community that is united by the medium of artists’ moving image and its history.
The openness of this format and its fluidity was strongly influenced by specific precursors. While of course the role of a self-organized education group is nothing new (and owes much to the structures of consciousness-raising groups and action learning), the BCG specifically stemmed from looking at two learning initiatives developed by LUX, a British distribution agency for artist moving image: firstly, the Associated Artists Programme that was headed up by artist and writer Ian White, and secondly, the Critical Forums initiated by Benjamin Cook. Both of these education initiatives had sought to create mutually supportive contexts that centered on creative and intellectual development. While comprised of artists, both the AAP and the Critical Forums discouraged artists from showing their own films and videos, and instead it applied critical discourse as the main subject for discussion.
While the initial meetings of the BCG included a range of individuals from various disciplines including teachers (involved in both high school and college-level education), public programmers, and filmmakers, what everyone had in common was the impulse of learning. Whether showing people how to confidently develop and project 16mm film without intimidation, demonstrating different technologies used for video animation, or teaching the history of experimental film, each individual was in some senses a teacher. The consequence was an instant desire to exchange knowledge. But unlike the traditional pedagogical structures of teacher-student, the BCG held the tension of a leaderless group that had no fixed outcome as a productive paradox. This was a project that was always bound to seek its own autonomy and develop a self-sustaining dialogue across disciplines, a dialogue that would hold artists moving image at its heart.
The intentions and ideas about what the BCG should be and do emerged from the group’s parallel discussions of showing and discussing artwork from the Bentson Collection. One of the key activities that surfaced from the group was the collective curation of a set of film programs, which would recontextualize and focus attention on specific works from the Benton Collection. Presented as publicly accessible playlists within the Walker’s newly renovated Mediatheque, the BCG programs presented ways of rethinking works in relation to one another and their political and cultural relevance to our present moment. In December 2016, the BCG launched Politics of the Domestic, its first public playlist (still on view in the Mediatheque), a program of short experimental films from the 1960s to the present day that questions the impact of advertising and design on our everyday lives. Its recent program Infrastructures launched at the beginning of February, exploring the visible and invisible infrastructures that undergird our experiences of the built environment. And soon the BCG will present members’ own works and ideas as part of “…I’m not a filmmaker,” a panel discussion about personal works and scholarship that challenge and expand upon Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers’s filmic practice.
As someone who has always worked remotely for the Walker (I am based in Glasgow and Berlin, commuting to the Walker twice a year), my proximity to the group and its activity was, by equal turns, problematically and productively distant. In the time since its very first meeting in 2015, the BCG has become a full self-organized entity, and so my description of it—or indeed any singly authored voice that attempts to encapsulate the thoughts and actions of a collective—should always be understood as a limited position from which to describe the BCG’s current composition and working methods.
As one of the Walker members of the BCG recently noted regarding my task of trying to write this very text, it is a challenge to write “about a collective experiment designed to grow organically and remain somewhat fluid and undefined, not to mention writing about something you haven’t been able to actively participate in.” And so, with this limitation nonetheless braided with joy, I can say that the merits of the BCG cannot be fully articulated by descriptions of it, but by its actions, projects and presentations.