Teaching Artists’ Films


by Stefanie Schlüter

This text is the condensed version of a research paper commissioned by the International Short Film Festival (Oberhausen). The paper was presented to the public in a podium discussion about “Children and the Moving Image” with Mike Sperlinger (LUX, London) and Stefanie Schlüter (film-educator, Berlin) at the festival in 2010. The author thanks Mike Sperlinger for his valuable advice on the research paper.

There are many reasons why distributors of artists’ films(1) should consider initiating projects addressing and involving children. On the one hand, arts education for children still tends to concentrate on traditional arts and media like painting, music, theatre, etc. On the other hand there seems to be a significant lack of aesthetically challenging initiatives for these age groups within film education programmes. Despite all this, most children are likely to be exposed to all kinds of moving images on a daily basis. Therefore it would be valuable to think about adding alternatives to the existing audio-visual environment of children, especially those who do not necessarily have regular contact with the visual arts.

Furthermore one should take into consideration that children have many capacities that allow them to instantaneously connect with artists’ films: Their openness in perceiving, their spontaneity in reacting to films, or their flexibility within creative processes, to name just a few, often coincide with the aesthetics of audiovisual works made by artists. Children love to see the world from unusual or at least from different angles as they may not have a fixed world-view yet.

This contribution will aim at suggesting some of the opportunities and obstacles distributors are facing in engaging younger children, aged 6 to 12 years. As the main challenges for distributors who get involved in educational programmes lie in a lack of funds and other resources, as well as of direct contact with younger audiences, I will highlight some strategies from existing projects, providing models for further initiatives.


There have been some fascinating initiatives taken by distributors – often in collaboration with freelance curators, artists and other cultural and/or educational institutions – to address younger audiences. Although this paper aims at the target group of children aged 6 to 12, I will include analogous projects dealing with other age groups, too. In this paper, I will present current projects that are mainly centered around cultural practices like screenings, film- and video workshops, and DVD publishing.

Film screenings are probably the most common practice for distributors. However, within educational contexts, screenings are more demanding than they would normally be. In order to create a collective and communicative environment for screening and discussing artists’ films with children, most distributors collaborate with other institutions, such as cinemas or gallery spaces.

For educational purposes, professional staff, ideally from artistic and/ or educational fields, are required. Sometimes educational departments of partnering institutions can be involved, or educators and artists are hired on a freelance basis. But for conducting continuous work, it seems problematic to entirely depend on the staff resources that distributors can provide or to rely solely on freelancing staff, as people very soon have to move on with other projects.

Funding is always one of the central problems. Firstly, fund raising causes a tremendous workload and, secondly, funding for aesthetic education of children outside the traditional arts is very small. Sometimes voluntary work is simply expected, as working with children is seen as “fun” rather than serious work. But projects conducted without any funding are usually limited in the time that can be invested and the educational media that can be produced, as well as the participants that can be reached.

The well funded Austrian project “VISIONary” for example was planned as a wide outreach and its structure can be seen as a good model for an ambitious screening-based project.(2) With financial support from the Austrian Ministery for Education, Art, and Culture (bm:ukk), innovative Austrian films distributed by sixpackfilm (Vienna) were circulated through the whole country. Teaching material was made accessible for free on the internet and recently a DVD was published as part of the Index DVD edition. Judging by its well established structure, it is difficult to tell why the project did not generate a huge audience. In particular the screenings of experimental films were hardly (if at all) booked by schools. One reason might be that teachers often regard artists’ films as “difficult to understand” or “irrelevant for the school’s curriculum”.

Therefore it is important to include teachers as a target group, too. It is well known that before you reach children, you have to reach their teachers. At the same time teachers are among the most difficult target groups, not least because of the many other demands on their time and curricula. Therefore it is advisable to employ manifold promotional strategies (e.g. newsletters, homepages, printed brochures, etc.). The most effective method still is personal contact: To directly get in touch with schools and teachers, to introduce the projects in a school staff meeting, to build up partnerships with individual schools, to organise special screenings, and to conduct seminars for teachers.

Lasting three to four days, one very intense seminar for teachers for all age groups is the “Summer School” held in the Austrian Filmmuseum (Vienna). Taking place during summer holidays, the atmosphere is very relaxed, and from the mostly enthusiastic feedback the “Summer School” appears to strengthen the relationship between the Filmmuseum and teachers. Concerning artists’ films, there seems to be a noticeable lack of knowledge among teachers and so they regularly ask for material that helps them to understand the artistic concepts of the films.(3) Among other educational programmes, the Austrian Filmmuseum runs a kind of “open studio space” (“In the Studio with…”), that brings together artists, pupils and their teachers in the Filmmuseum’s cinema.

Filmmakers (e.g. Peter Tscherkassky or Virgil Widrich) take the role as presenters of their own work by screening their films and discussing their artistic approaches with a young audience.(4) This model is particularly useful for addressing the lack of knowledge about the practical side of filmmaking. For students, the “handmade” quality of Tscherkassky’s films was one of the most fascinating parts of the presentations so far.

Practical workshops with artists might be the most motivating experience for both children and teachers, because the “hands-on” experience opens up a completely different view of what film/video/art is and encourages the younger ones to actively participate. However, conducting these workshops demands experienced staff as well as other resources. The easiest way to organise and accomplish workshops seems to be through collaboration with an institution that runs an educational department and can provide staff as well as space and technical support.

The Netherland’s Media Art Institute (NIMk, Amsterdam) has such a department which permanently offers two-hour workshops concentrating on diverse forms of media art.(5) A workshop series (“Cory Archangel”) on camera gameboy animation held by media artist Gijs Gieske was closely related to the media environment of adolescents. This might be one of the reasons for its huge success: 600 students participated in Amsterdam.(6) In order to reach an audience outside the cultural centre, too, NIMk is currently developing a concept for a van, the “Media Art Mobile”, to travel throughout the Netherlands visiting schools and festivals, showing works from NIMk’s collection and organising workshops.(7)

Workshops can either be created on a short-term basis with large groups and a very spontaneous creative output, providing a kind of “first contact” with media art, or on a long-term basis with smaller groups and a slower creative process. In “The New Media Education Collaborative”, a collaboration between Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), Dia Center for the Arts (New York) and others, practicing artists worked with ten students of a local high school in after-school hours. This very ambitious project provides a good model for sustainability, and its most outstanding success might be that one of the former students regularly visits EAI events and is now pursuing an art career. However within long-term projects it sometimes can be difficult to motivate participants – especially when the course is voluntary.

For reasons like this, it might be valuable to think about workshop models that on the one hand leave some time for a creative process and on the other hand allow an intense work atmosphere. For the Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art (Berlin), in collaboration with various artists/filmmakers, I developed workshops for children that last five successive days. All workshops have a similar structure: 1st day – screening and discussing a short film programme in the Arsenal cinema; 2nd to 4th day – creative work with artists; 5th day – editing and screening of the children’s works. This workshop model was equally successful with children, adolescents, teachers, and artists, as it fits the schedules of all the participants. Moreover, if a workshop is taking place during school hours, everybody tends to take it very seriously and as a side-effect one also reaches the teachers. Two series of workshops were conducted so far: “Moving Image” with artist/filmmaker Anna Faroqhi was a series of video workshops on documentary filmmaking, and “Everything is moving on its own” with filmmakers Ute Aurand, Robert Beavers, and sound-artist Dirk Schaefer was on direct filmmaking (35mm), experimental animation (16mm), and digital sound recording.(8) One of the most fascinating experiences of the workshop on experimental filmmaking was the materialistic, haptic approach to film. An integral part of the concept was that I, as a professional educator, would accompany most of the workshops, because not all artists feel 100% confident in working with younger peer groups and, for various reasons, teachers and artists are not always a perfect match. To have a person on board who knows both worlds (art/school) sometimes helps a lot, e.g. in planning the workshops, communicating with schools, and in the process of working with children.

Publishing DVDs
DVDs for educational purposes are a very valuable resource for children, teachers, and parents alike. The distributor Filmform (Stockholm) for example is currently establishing a project group with artists, curators and pedagogues in order to realise their DVD project “Video art – What is that?” Contemporary and historical video art will be made available in several “theme packages”, including handbooks, teaching material, and a compilation DVD with about six films each. Among other distributional strategies, the DVDs should be available via resource centers as they are very important distributors for educational material.

A different concept for a DVD is presented by the Rotterdam-based project “Big Art for Small People” that was initiated by Nathalie Faber and Carolien Euser and involves artists in producing films for a very special target group: the 2 to 6 year olds. The artists are commissioned to make films of a length of around two minutes and without using any language. Even the design of the DVD menu is based on abstract icons rather than on written language, so that small children could play with it. The project’s homepage and the DVD booklets also exist in English as the project is meant to be disseminated internationally.(9)

The “Children’s Film Library”, conceived by curator Ian White for Whitechapel Gallery (London), involved not only artists but children in the selection process of films for DVDs. The concept was partly a reaction to the unbalanced situation that it is always adults (educators, curators, so-called “experts”) choosing films for children. The most outstanding result from the project is that children actually became curators, critics, and designers of their own DVD edition, including the design of the covers and booklets. Although the availability of the DVDs is restricted (they can only be rented from a local library, the “Whitechapel Idea Store”), it still is great that anybody using the library could take the DVDs home.

Speaking of the aspect of participation, I would like to add that in publishing DVDs for children, one should also consider publishing some of the children’s workshop results together with artists’ films, as the children’s work often disappears as soon as a workshop is over. But films made by peers might encourage other children to become creative as well.


Within the last couple of years, commercial distributors discovered the “school market”. Regarding not only this development, one could seriously ask for alternatives – especially for younger children. If one aim of “aesthetic education” is to offer children unusual and challenging modes of perceptions via media that they would normally not have any access to, one could even ask more polemically: Why are distributors of artists’ films leaving the “school market” to commercial productions that children already have access to? Why leave them alone with commercial film productions – even in educational programmes for schools? Why not start with aesthetically challenging programmes for children as early as possible in their education? Why not make the very young experience diverse modes of perception from their early stages on?

There are also more pragmatic reasons for distributors to take these questions seriously. Public arts funding is increasingly tied to social policy outcomes in many countries and organisations receiving public arts subsidies need to seriously tackle questions of education and broadening access. Moreover, even if artists’ distributors are non-commercial, they have a vested interest in being advocates for their art form and generating new potential audiences beyond those already served by the more public facing exhibitors whom they distribute to.

Addressing these questions does not necessarily involve daunting large-scale initiatives. For example, trying to incorporate the possibility of reaching younger audiences into everyday thinking would open up new opportunities. One of the first steps to promote artists’ films for educational purposes could be taken via the homepages of each distributor. As most homepages hardly provide any information about films suitable for younger audiences, it seems worth considering having an “education” button as standard, which could lead to artists’ films suitable for children at different ages.

One could also go a step further and think about establishing an international collaborative platform for distributors of artists’ films serving especially the “under served” peer group of children (aged 6 to 12). A collaboration like this could have many advantages, e.g. the number of films that can be offered for children could be expanded if a couple of distributors joined forces. Furthermore, more diverse kinds of films could be offered (contemporary, historical films, films from different contintents, etc.). There are many more reasons for international collaborations in this particular field – for example, work could be shared in developing programmes collaboratively and in applying for funds.

Also foundations could be approached that only operate on an international level. With more than one distributor involved and some funding support, it will also hopefully be possible to systematically address the question of paying artists appropriately for their involvement either as active participants or licensors of work.

If distributors wish to take up the challenge of reaching younger audiences, it seems worth thinking of how they could devise projects which would rely on their existing strengths as much as possible rather than simply pose new challenges to their limited resources. While the various artists’ distributors have different histories, resources, and priorities, one could identify a number of things they have in common:

1. Very large networks of potentially sympathetic organisations, including cinemas, museums and educational institutions
2. Strong, long-standing relationships with a large pool of artists
3. The knowledge required to explain and contextualise a variety of approaches to the moving image, along with access to thousands of historical examples
4. Technology and infrastructure for disseminating films internationally at relatively low cost
5. Experience of applying for project funding

Together, all these factors already offer a great opportunity for distributors to act as a mediating force between the contemporary visual arts and children who are already at home with moving images.


1 The collective term “artists”˜ films” describes films of artists who work in the fields of avantgarde, experimental film or video art.
2 About “VISIONary”: http://www.sixpackfilm.com/archive/veranstaltung/festivals/visionary/visionary.html (screening programmes)
http://www.index-dvd.at/de/program/034/index.html (DVD)
http://www.filmabc.at/bilder/file/16_17_Filmheft_VISIONary_Essayfilm.pdf (teaching material)
3 The research project “The Art of Transmission – Conveying Film with Films” provides a collection of interviews with filmmakers and texts about what can be “learned” from artists’ films:
4 The Austrian Filmmuseum’s educational department: http://www.filmmuseum.at:80/forschung__vermittlung
5 NIMk’s educational department: http://nimk.nl/nl/educatie/
6 Examples of the students’ work: http://gieskes.nl/gameboy-camera/workshop/?p=NIMK-Fons-Vitaehv4&k=02
7 “Media Art Mobile”: http://nimk.nl/eng/search/michiel-kluiters-designs-mediaartmobile
8 “Moving Image” and “Everything is moving on its own”: http://www.filmvermittlung.de/index.php?/project/filmworkshops/
9 “Big Art for Small People” (DVD-booklets): http://www.grotekunstvoorkleinemensen.nl/gkvkm_boekje_en.pdf

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