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Champion of the ‘free radicals’: Interview with Pip Chodorov

After introducing film to Fiac and battling to get fair prices for film-makers’ works, Pip Chodorov made his own history of experimental cinema—and now he is celebrating the work of a pioneering artist in a forthcoming Serpentine Gallery show.

Pip Chodorov won’t stay still. Most recently, he has been a documentary director, turning out a small triumph of a film on the history of experimental film-makers. He also manages to combine running a gallery—which has shown at the Fiac art fair—with involvement in a worldwide network of co-operatively organised film laboratories. He supplies salvaged and bespoke film equipment to museums and galleries around the world, and continues to make his own experimental works. And he travels extensively, showing the films of and speaking about a group of artists whose work he cherishes.

In a small café near his apartment in central Paris, he points out a modest display of DVDs released by his distribution company, Re:voir. On the cases is a line in bold, like the health alert on a cigarette packet: “Warning: digital compression can severely harm your taste in cinema.” The message, a heads-up about the inability of DVDs to show film at the quality intended by film-makers, might seem contradictory, given the intention is to sell the discs, but Chodorov thrives on contradictions.

His film “Free Radicals: a History of Experimental Cinema” was shown at festivals around the world in 2011, garnering positive reviews and picking up a clutch of awards. It gained a theatrical release in his native US this summer, with further screenings scheduled for the autumn, and is due to be released on DVD by Re:voir later this year, along with a batch of films by the alternative cinema éminence grise Jonas Mekas. Chodorov has also been involved in organising a major Mekas exhibition, due to open at London’s Serpentine Gallery in December. Concurrent film retrospectives at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and BFI Southbank in London have been timed to coincide with the artist’s 90th birthday on Christmas Eve.

In “Free Radicals”, he combines interviews (both by himself and from the archives) with a starry line-up of experimental-film pioneers (Mekas, Stan Brakhage, Robert Breer, Hans Richter, Len Lye, Peter Kubelka, Stan VanDerBeek and even a brief glimpse of Andy Warhol and Nam June Paik). The film features examples of their work and gives a potted history of the genre.

The standard documentary format is given fresh treatment by the inclusion of excerpts from some of Chodorov’s own experimental works, along with family archive material. One reviewer describes his warm, personal style of narration as having a “gee-whizz feel”, but it is a condescending comment: Chodorov’s infectious enthusiasm is part of the film’s charm. Unusually, a number of full-length short films are also included. Two of the most striking are works by Len Lye: his own “Free Radicals”, a scratched-on-surface animation made between 1958 and 1979, and “Rainbow Dance”, an almost psychedelic, full-colour work made in 1936. The documentary is a partial history, focusing on a discrete strand of film-making and involving a relatively tight band of film-makers, but the director’s close association with many of the subjects leads to some frank interviews.

Chodorov’s grandfather, Edward, was a Ukrainian-Hungarian immigrant to New York who found success as a Broadway playwright and later as a Hollywood screenwriter and producer, before Senator McCarthy’s blacklisting forced him to return to Europe to work. “[As a child,] my dad would see W.C. Fields or Groucho Marx at home,” Chodorov says. The pattern was repeated when his father, Stephan, a producer and director of the US TV arts magazine show “Camera 3”, invited his subjects to the family’s country home; Pip met Hans Richter when he was eight. While other kids might draw on paper, the youngest Chodorov would be scratching on scraps of film that his dad brought home from the editing suite.

“I didn’t like running around and playing sports like other kids in the country did,” he says. Instead, he picked up a camera. “So my grandfather made narrative films, my father made documentaries and I made whatever was left.”

After university in the US, Chodorov worked for the New York-based art-house film distributor Orion Classics before relocating to France for graduate study, also working as an intern at the Cannes Film Festival. Some of Chodorov’s films were seen by Yann Beauvais, the co-founder of the Paris-based co-operative LightCone, which promotes and distributes experimental film. After setting up a video label for LightCone, Chodorov left to start Re:voir.

“In the second year, I put out Stan Brakhage, Maurice Lemaître and Jürgen Reble, Brakhage and Lemaître being historical and Reble being contemporary. Every year, I tried to keep the horizon balanced between old [and] new [and] different countries. And that’s continuing strong now, 15 or 16 years later,” he says.

He has also, albeit intermittently, been a dealer, attempting to find a way to sell work by film-makers who have little idea of how to value their films or are politically disinclined to become involved with the art market. He started the Film Gallery after a visit to the Fiac art fair in 2004. “I saw paintings and sculptures, but… I was shocked that there were no films. I’d spent ten to 15 years defending or distributing these artists, and seeing them absent, like a black hole, left me thinking there was something wrong. I was going to Venice to see Jonas [Mekas], who had the Lithuanian pavilion there in 2005. I thought, ‘Jonas is now in the art world; we should put him in Fiac, [but] I don’t know how to do it.’ ”

A chance encounter on a train with the director of Fiac, Jennifer Flay, led to an invitation to show at the fair. “So I started a gallery. [Or rather] I pretended to have a gallery. I made a new letterhead that said ‘the Film Gallery’ and submitted the proposal.” Chodorov found that there was confusion about what he was selling. “We had films for sale but we didn’t do our homework in terms of the market. We just showed films,” he says. Chodorov recalls that Ben Vautier, a French artist associated with Fluxus, offered to buy a film by Brakhage that was being shown at the booth, but that he did not have rights to sell it. “I had some films and I had negotiated with those film-makers the right to sell prints, and I had some idea of how much they should cost. But art collectors don’t think of film when they think of art. They want an object.”

Now he sells prints on a fairly regular basis, but stresses the commercial problems associated with dealing in work that may not be editioned, or where the original negative is in bad condition, or where there are complicated rights issues. He cites Isidore Isou’s “Venom and Eternity”, 1951, a two-hour 35mm film that was restored in the late 1970s when the Pompidou bought a print. “The Reina Sofia museum in Madrid bought a copy from me for €29,000. They didn’t buy a negative, they just bought a print. To me, that’s a tenth of what it should cost. Part of the reason it’s so cheap is that it’s not editioned, or signed, or numbered, [and] hasn’t been printed in 30 years… [and although] the museum was giving me a low price because it wasn’t editioned, the fact is they’re [effectively] getting a unique thing; maybe it will never be bought by any other museum.”

Experimental film, he believes, falls between two stools. “It remains [a misunderstood commodity] because the people who go to art school never learn about film history and the people who go to film school never learn about art history. There’s this big divide. And the people who do experimental film are in neither one [world] nor the other.” He can be spiky about contemporary artists who use film or video as a medium. “There’s a very big difference between what experimental film-makers are doing and what plastic artists—contemporary artists—are doing when working with film. Steve McQueen filmed a dead horse for ten minutes [in Running Thunder, 2007]… it’s not really film-making to me.”

Chodorov’s commitment to the purity of his chosen form might seem rigid, but it is a noble cause, especially given the gulf between the acclaim for the work and the relatively small income it generates for many of its practitioners. “I once asked Stan Brakhage if I could buy his [1963] film ‘Mothlight’ from him,” he says. “It was a hypothetical question. But no one had ever asked him that before. He’d no idea what it would cost or what he’d [have to] give up.” Brakhage died having achieved great critical success but relatively little financial reward. In “Free Radicals”, the film-maker Ken Jacobs recalls being so poor that he resorted to eating cold, greasy spare ribs from a bin outside a restaurant in the early 1960s. Then again, Jacobs also states that his ambition was “to capsize the United States of America”. Chodorov asks if it worked. Jacobs smiles and shrugs. Like his interrogator, and many of his surviving colleagues, he is still committed.

“Free Radicals” is due to be shown at the Zeitgeist Arts Center, New Orleans (5-11 October), the Union Theatre, Milwaukee (8 November), and Film Streams, Omaha, Nebraska (7-13 December). “Jonas Mekas” is at the Serpentine Gallery, London (5 December-20 January 2013). For more information, visit www.re-voir.com

Film on the fringes: Pip’s experimental peers

1 Re:voir Pip Chodorov’s distribution company has an extensive back catalogue of experimental films

2 Jonas Mekas Chodorov has helped to organise the avant-garde film-maker’s forthcoming Serpentine Gallery show

3 Nam June Paik The late video artist appears in “Free Radicals”

4 Stan Brakhage Before Chodorov, no one had asked to buy the late film-maker’s work

5 Hans Richter Chodorov met the artist, who knew his father, as a child