Ruth Mills performing in Jennifer West's installation at Tramway, September 2016

Wish you were here

I spent the summer chasing cinema. By ferry, train, bus, car, or bike I’ve travelled to places I had never been before, to catch brief spells of light on temporary screens. I started typing this on a boat heading for Zeebrugge, shortly before entering the on-board cinema to watch a Hollywood blockbuster I had missed. I come back to the text almost two months later, after fifteen minutes of wonder in an installation by American artist Jennifer West. In the vast warehouse space of the old tram depot, in complete darkness, Ruth Mills performed the serpentine dance, illuminated by handheld torches shining through strips of celluloid. The familiar rows of sprocket holes and the soft colours of tinted film moved and merged on the walls, as the audience wandered around, shining their torches closer or further away, playing with a magically simple form of projection. A beam of light and shadow, a wall, darkness, and someone watching: I’ve seen this alchemy over and over, and it is never the same twice.

The Screen Machine at Kyleakin

The Screen Machine at Kyleakin

The warm glow of the cinema at the Burnlaw Centre

The warm glow of the cinema at the Burnlaw Centre

At the beginning of the summer, I followed the Screen Machine to Skye and Raasay, where the familiar space of a cinema on wheels offered the comforts that the Scottish weather denies to campers. After a couple of days away from the city, the Icelandic moors with their hardy sheep in Rams fused in my memory with their Highland equals. In rural Northumberland I watched Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights, its affectionate humanism made vastly more resonant by the communal meals we shared between its three parts, the togetherness of collective spectatorship nurtured by the warmth of hospitality from our hosts at the Burnlaw Centre. In the last part of Gomes’s extraordinary trilogy, there is a long documentary segment about rugged Lisbon men who breed and train chaffinches for singing tournaments. As the film taught us how to identify the parts of a bird’s song, we realised the chaffinches we heard were also outside the window. Thanks to that random juxtaposition, I now know what a chaffinch sounds like; I apprehend a little bit more of the world. A similar modest discovery took place in an old United Presbyterian Church off the Gallowgate, where a short film about doo fleein’ finally explained to me what those structures I had always seen by the canal were, and illuminated a new corner of my life in the city.

Screens and drums at Hidden Door festival, Edinburgh, June 2016

Screens and drums at Hidden Door festival, Edinburgh, June 2016

Wee Green Cinema, Pollokshields Playhouse, July 2016

Wee Green Cinema, Pollokshields Playhouse, July 2016

Cinema this summer engaged my body as well as my attention. In a small, pitch-black room in an electrical warehouse in Edinburgh, I made the palms of my hands tender through drumming, using my skin on skin to learn, to listen to the stories of Afro-Colombian struggles for freedom, told through beat and song in Diana Kuellar’s video installation Benkos. I cycled the two beautiful miles from Gorebridge to Temple Village Hall, where the pleasure of uncomplicated, friendly cinemagoing was augmented by homemade lemon drizzle cake. I also cycled to the temporarily reclaimed space of the Pollokshields Playhouse, in the Southside of Glasgow, and then cycled some more to resistance and solidarity, and a glimmer of hope that we will still have cinema after the coming catastrophe. Hope was also there in the relaxed intimacy of a yurt full of children and child-like adults, talking back to the films and to each other’s explanations of them, during CineMor77’s appearance at Doune the Rabbit Hole.

Temple, Midlothian

Temple, Midlothian

Mairi (1912) gets the live treatment at Cinemor77's yurt, August 2016

Mairi (1912) gets the live treatment at Cinemor77’s yurt, August 2016

This summer I had the amazing privilege to go chasing a will o’ the wisp as it flickered here and there, with little more justification than my curiosity. I was able and allowed to do this, and I hope this will only make me more awake to all the barriers that I didn’t even see, that I glibly skipped over, or that others held open for me – not to trick me into misplaced guilt, but to spur me to share this luck. Read this, if you will, as my excuse for telling you about the nice things I’ve seen, the kindness that survives, the simple joys that could be ours.

Live lassoing at Glasgow Film Festival's screening of Thelma and Louise

Live a little

Last week started and ended thinking about liveness and cinema. At Stirling, the symposium on Silent Cinema and the Transition to Sound traced the gradual fracture of the link between live music and the moving image; then, in London, the Live Cinema conference traced its re-emergence. The histories are, of course, much less linear than this curve suggests. The Live Cinema conference marked the launch of a report on the state of ‘live cinema’ in the UK, based on research conducted over the past year (with last summer snappily identified as ‘the summer of live’), and a themed section in the current issue of Participations bringing together a series of case studies around ‘secret cinema’. The Illuminations blog has a perceptive blow-by-blow account of the day, with reflections that resonate with my argument here.

Back at Stirling, Trevor Griffiths showed how the Musicians’ Union membership had shrunk dramatically at the turn of the sound era, as cinema musicians everywhere lost their jobs; now, according to the report, film exhibition is a growing source of employment for some musicians, engaged to create and perform music for silent and classic films. Stephen Horne offered an astonishing demonstration at Stirling with his live piano accompaniment to A cottage in Dartmoor (1929), which amplified the film’s gut-wrenching emotional power, its vanguardist montage and meticulous cinematography. The Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema has made a name for itself as a commissioner of new scores and prime location for silent film music. However, the report also suggests that some of the exhibitors that put on silent film with live music are hesitant to be brought under the banner of ‘live cinema’.

Here we come to the matter of definitions, which was at the heart of the discussion during the conference at King’s College. One of the aims of the Live Cinema in the UK report is ‘creating a common definition’. But common to what? Throughout the conference, different people had different visions of what the term meant, or whether a term was needed at all. That the proposed moniker refers to the concept of ‘liveness’ further complicates things. The romantic associations of liveness critiqued by Philip Auslander (magic, energy, authenticity, community) keep appearing in exhibitors’ discourse.

“Live performance […] has become the means by which mediatized representations are naturalized, according to a simple logic that appeals to our nostalgia for what we assumed was the im-mediate: if the mediatized image can be recreated in a live setting, it must have been “real” to begin with”. (Auslander, Liveness, p. 54)

From a media theory standpoint, we’ve been here before and had this conversation already, though it is by no means a closed case. What was more interesting about the panels was the evidence of how ‘live’ works as a marketing category. While some academic participants felt there could have been more reflection, the conference offered a privileged opportunity to hear about how the idea of ‘live’ is being mobilised in relation to screening events by a growing industry.

One key distinction that the report, and the conference, alternatively drew and blurred, is that between the terms ‘Live Cinema’ and ‘Event Cinema’. This is in part because there is already an Event Cinema Association, and they have positioned that term in replacement of the too-vague ‘alternative content’ to mean, essentially, livecasting: the presentation in cinema venues of live transmissions of events. Siding with Rick Altman and many other exhibition/audience scholars, I would say ‘event cinema’ is tautological, as any instantiation of cinema takes place somewhere, sometime, and is therefore an event. Pedantry aside, however, I take more issue with the notion that this is ‘cinema’ because it takes place in a cinema auditorium. The medium is, plainly, television. And the mode of spectatorship and context of performance, according to Martin Barker’s research, are completely different from those associated with film. For instance, livecast opera audiences, according to Barker, book their tickets differently, interact differently with the front of house, and expect people to be quiet and not munching popcorn. People attending a big-screen transmission of a football match will behave more like they would at a stadium than at a movie, and so on. The cinema-ness is decentred from the cinema space; as Barker said, these opera audiences feel they’ve ‘reclaimed’ the cinema space.

But for the sake of argument let’s let livecasts be called Event Cinema, and take that out of the equation when we talk about the other stuff. In the report, the researchers advance a definition of Live Cinema as “a film screening utilising additional performance or interactivity inspired by the content of the film.” (p. 4) This is an odd definition because it only mentions two of the three categories that Sarah Atkinson and Helen Kennedy have also outlined in their introduction to the Participations dossier. This is a very useful opening contribution to a research field that is only getting established, and as such I have some respectful disagreements with this taxonomy. The ‘participatory’ category is fairly self-explanatory, including singalongs, cosplay, and dancing, for instance. The ‘augmented’ category covers live or mediated performances, or exhibition contexts, that ‘add a further dimension to the filmic text’ (live music being an example). But then there’s the seemingly more modest ‘enhanced’ category, in which ‘the physical experience is enhanced but this is not relative to the story of the film’ (p. 141). Outdoor screenings are given as an example, but more often than not these are arranged with some attention to the film content. A question emerges later over whether Q&As are to be considered Live Cinema (I don’t think so). As Atkinson and Kennedy point out, theirs is a pioneering incursion into the field, and their taxonomies are meant to be tested and refined. At the moment, they perhaps try to account for too much diversity, in order to justify the inclusion of such disparate experiences in the strange agglomeration of Live Cinema.

So we come back to the question of definition. Over on Twitter, the Events Cinema Association, who are anxious about the proliferation of terms, claimed that labels are not important for audiences (while defending theirs…)

Indeed, the relatively small surveys conducted for the report show general confusion or vagueness between both exhibitors and audiences about the term ‘Live Cinema’, but then concluded that this could be resolved by educating the audience, “informing them that live cinema is a unique brand proposition”. (p. 17). And this is a crucial insight.

Responding to repeated claims for the novelty of participatory screenings, Matt Jones reminded the panel that none of this is actually new. Atkinson and Kennedy fully acknowledge this, citing ‘expanded cinema, happenings, ballyhoo’ amongst the genealogies of the phenomena they study (p. 148). What seems to have changed is, on the one hand, the commercialisation of previously marginal practices (non-theatrical exhibition, fan/cult expression), and on the other, the centering of previously ancillary promotional practices: Ballyhoo as core experience, served up by dedicated producers. The preoccupation with terminology is understandable, because, as quoted above, the term Live Cinema is intended as branding. Branding, in this case, creates differentiation and manages audience expectations, as well as helping justify increased ticket prices. As Auslander says in relation to 1990s ‘interactive theatre’,

“the ostensible evanescence and nonrepeatibility of the live experience ironically become selling points to promote a product that must be fundamentally the same in each of its instantiations” (Liveness, p. 61).

If I was asked to come up with a marketing term, however, I would propose ‘extraordinary’ or simply ‘special screenings’ (Glasgow Film Festival brands its strand simply as ‘Special Events’). Liveness is not their essence; liveness is sometimes their method, a way to create artificial scarcity in a market in which consumers are supposed to have instant access to everything everywhere all the time. Site-specificity is another way to make a screening special, and it is not covered by ‘liveness’. It is important that the events in question are ephemeral and not easily scalable; they must be exclusive in some sense, and the audience must believe their experiences are unique.

These audiences are courted and placated, engaged and reassured, allowing them to enjoy the thrills of riskless discovery. Precisely a month after the Radical Film Network weekend, this narrow devotion to pleasure and ‘fun’ rang a bit hollow. This is confirmed by the statistics included in the report, which, although preliminary, are informative. There are no indicators of socio-economic status, but 100% of the people surveyed at live cinema events claimed to be ‘frequent cultural events attendees’. When asked whether the market might have reached saturation point, panellists rejected the idea, claiming that ‘people want options’. This foregrounding of choice and consumer ‘power’ (somewhat reminiscent of the more sinister Higher Education White Paper released this month) is part of the positioning of this sector as a commercial alternative to the multiplex. More often than not, this is a choice of distinction, in the Bourdieusian sense. The motivation for ever more inventive ways to capture our overstretched attention seems to be to capture premium customers, those privileged enough to be bored of the multiplex. Interesting tropes of controlled playfulness, connected to gaming, also inform the sector’s ideology of ‘fun’, as Atkinson and Kennedy have shown elsewhere.

The attention economy is cut-throat, and there is a huge amount of creativity and hard work going into the planning of very complex ‘total artworks’. Some event producers are thriving, and good luck to them; some are surviving, most are still doing and depending on lots of unpaid labour. Commercial viability has been achieved by adopting mass-media/bourgeois aesthetics: nostalgia, novelty, lack of dissonance, comfort, etc. As the Radical Film Network attests, a critical underground continues to pose a DIY alternative to this appropriation, but it is also often subsumed in the seemingly apolitical variety of cultural consumption. The mainstreaming of non-theatrical, participatory forms, in particular, makes them available to a broader audience, but erodes their oppositional potential. The degree to which there is indeed an oppositional potential in any of these phenomena (whether mass-mediatic or not) depends on the extent of your cultural pessimism, but I remain unconvinced that ‘more stuff’ is necessarily the best use of our energies. Then again, I would say that. Discuss…

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Cinema as occupation

This month started with a memorable couple of days racing around Glasgow to try and catch glimpses of the Radical Film Network festival and unconference. There was a lot on, and incredible variety, as many local groups and individuals organised screenings and events autonomously. We will be talking about it for months, but I wanted to try and start organising some thoughts emerging from some of the conversations that took place that weekend at the unconference, and from the unconference itself as a form of organising.

Chelsea facilitating the scheduling of unconference sessions

Chelsea facilitating the scheduling of unconference sessions

Many of the people who came to the unconference from outside Glasgow show films in places that are not cinemas (and some have started their own cinemas). Most of the screenings during the festival also took place in spaces that are not normally used for film exhibition. Although the RFN Scotland organising group deliberately avoided policing definitions of what’s radical (a point that keeps coming up for discussion in the broader context of the Network), a tacit alignment to the left was evident. The RFN’s website talks of “film culture for a fair, just and sustainable society”, which is obviously a pretty broad church. In practice, in the context of film exhibition at this particular juncture, this meant mainly non-commercial and/or underground practices.

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The events throughout the May Day weekend, like with most socially-engaged forms of film exhibition, had something in common: they used film to bring people to a place, in the hopes that a meaningful engagement would happen, that conversations would start. But just as often, it was the place itself that was an attraction, and the film screening was an opportunity to be in a space. Under the pretence of watching films we get to sit in a shop in the Barras market, the ruin of a church, a women’s housing co-op, or under the railway arches. Entering these temporary venues while thinking politically left me with some questions regarding film exhibition as a radical tactic.

Popular struggles have a long history of using physical presence in and control of a space as an effective form of pressure, but most importantly as a form of direct action (such as in factory work-ins and free universities).  The college sit-in and the landless farmers‘ unauthorised tilling are both forms of reclaiming a space and transforming it into the kind of space that is needed. Doreen Massey said of Occupy London that  it was “a real creation of a space of the kind that we need a lot more of. A space that brings us together to talk and to argue about the kind of future world we want”. At one of the unconference panels someone mentioned Hakim Bey’s concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ), a “free enclave […], a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it.” I will park the question of whether Occupy camps or other specific occupations are to be considered TAZs or not; it is the notion of ‘liberating an area’ that matters. In their reflection on film and resistance against the capitalist appropriation of urban space, Geraldine Pratt and Rose Marie San Juan argue that cinema can work as “a temporary suspension from everyday life, in which new relations can come into being” (2014, p. 176)

So in what ways is the event of cinema like an occupation?

There might be similar logistics: a need to provide creature comforts, whether that means central heating or open fire, plush seats or stacked pallets, a cocktail bar or a communal pot of soup. Conditions must be created that allow people to stay – and these obviously depend on how long people are planning to stay. This is particularly the case when the place under occupation is not one meant for living/for cinema: a factory, a city square, a university lobby. But just as important as the material conditions, the space has to be reinvented socially; it acquires new function and new meaning, and therefore new ways of behaving in it need to emerge. In a screening, the film is the backbone that makes the event understandable from the outside, imaginable, legitimate, even fundable. Getting together to watch a film makes sense to a lot of people; going to an odd place to meet with strangers and have an unplanned conversation, not so much (although if you frame it as an unconference it might even work!).

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Moving Parts and Revolutions

One of the challenges of inventing new spaces, especially liberated spaces or spaces for liberation, is that of finding ways to be together that are not mediated by institutional law and policing. The topic of safer spaces came up during the Community Cinemas roundtable towards the end of the festival. Do temporary cinema spaces need safer spaces policies to be upheld for their duration, alongside or replacing the tacit or explicit rules of the venue? With or without such policies, can organisers contribute to make these spaces more accessible and more radical than ‘standard’ cinemas by communicating a kind of ‘vibe’? An interesting idea that came up (from Liverpool’s Small Cinema, if I remember correctly) was to tell the story of the cinema, perhaps in the form of a short trailer before the movie, helping build the trust and sense of investment that can make the audience feel like a fleeting community.

But often the cinema isn’t at all like an occupation. To begin with, its presence in space is, for the most part, not oppositional in itself; it is allowed by the usual controllers of the space, often invited, in celebration rather than protest. (I need to write much more about Cinema Up‘s endlessly thought-provoking Radical Home Cinema programme, but that’s for later.) It is also important not to lose sight of the distinctiveness of cinema as aesthetic experience. It is still at a remove from life, and so it opens up opportunities for introspection and wonder that are often missing in the collective busyness of activism. In foregrounding film’s ability to congregate people, it is easy to forget the power of individual experience (especially when it takes place in public). As Pratt and San Juan hope, cinema can create “an actual concrete space.

Not just as a space to gather information but as a space of fantasy, imagination, affect, and bodily reverberation and resonance. Not just as a space of individual reflection but as a space of sociality and discussion.” (p. 176)

At the same time, the non-committed relationship that is established in the temporary community of the viewing audience is very different to the long-term solidarity required to sustain radical social action, or simply to survive oppression. So perhaps the parallels don’t stretch too far – but they might still offer useful sightlines to bring the political back into thinking the cinema space.

References:

Pratt, Geraldine and Rose Marie San Juan (2014) Film and Urban Space: Critical Possibilities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

 

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Secrets, spectacles, suspicions

I’ve been thinking about Secret Cinema a lot this week. I used their short video of the Back to the Future screening in two lectures: First, in relation to Sarah Atkinson and Helen Kennedy’s work on the performative and gaming-inflected practices of SC audiences (and their pitfalls); and second, as part of a discussion about the way ‘pop-up’ cinema is so strongly associated with particular London happenings. In both cases, as the students watched the pyrotechnics and synchronised stunts in awe, I was once again transfixed by the spectacle (ok, also by the brief glimpse of a bearded Jarvis Cocker). The amount of preparation and precision, the commitment of the participants to dress codes and choreographed behaviours, the sheer scale of the thing are hugely impressive, especially when cut in the style of a music video to great tunes and presumably blending together the best bits over several runs of the event.
The massive, spectacular nature of Secret Cinema, its steep ticket prices, and its move from underground-ish to premium release window for films like Prometheus and The Grand Budapest Hotel have made it an obvious flashpoint for discussions of gentrification, pointing to an entitled relationship to urban space as a playground that obscures very real conflicts. Similar critiques have been directed at many other temporary uses of urban space conforming to a familiar pattern: white, young, relatively privileged entrepreneurs setting up a ‘pop-up’ shop/café/gallery/etc in a bit of the city seen as in need of regeneration, where that ‘regeneration’ implies the displacement of existing communities – either priced out of the area or straight-up evicted when housing states are condemned. (Lots of people have written about this; see for instance the work of Jen Harvie and Ella Harris) Most of these entrepreneurs have good intentions, but the playfulness of the ‘pop-up’ is often bound up with privilege, and always at risk of being co-opted. This year’s Turner Prize winners, the London collective Assemble, are arguably much more committed to grassroots, community engagement (not just the dressing-up-and-dancing-along variety); and yet, their very influential pop-up projects have encountered similar distrust.
Of course people will be suspicious when the posterboys and girls of the ‘creative economy’, whatever that is, suddenly turn up to places they had ignored before. Urban space is rife with tension, as the public becomes privatised and the state curtails its functions to focus on upholding the interests of a corporate elite. Glasgow City Council’s aborted idea of blowing up the Red Road flats as part of the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games showed us just how blatant this spectacularisation of working-class erasure could be. So I was not surprised when I read this morning that a group of Tower Hamlet residents had posted an ‘open letter’ to Secret Cinema, with regards to their forthcoming season of immersive screenings of the zombie film, 28 Days Later. Promotional images had emerged of Ernö Goldfinger’s brutalist masterpiece, the Balfron Tower, which seemed to imply that the Secret Cinema event would take place there or nearby. The Balfron Social Club called this ‘distasteful and inappropriate’, and furthering ‘an aggressive social cleansing agenda that is destroying our communities’.
The blog post was widely retweeted – with increasing levels of outrage, as tends to be the case in recent social media debates.

Only a couple of hours later, the Balfron Social Club reported that they had received a reply from Secret Cinema, which was posted under the original blog entry. This was a brief and informal email explaining that Secret Cinema did not plan to use that location, and that ‘we’ve used images of the tower because it’s a prominent part of the original film, not because it’s the location for our event.’ This seemed to calm things down, and yet what had surfaced was a long-held suspicion that this is the kind of thing they would do.

In short, most people were prepared to believe that ‘Secret Cinema are dickheads (again)‘, and even when the confusion was cleared up, the perception persists. This is partly explained by the very real sense of exclusion produced by £65 tickets. On the other hand, there is growing weariness with and suspicion of pop-up everything. The rather uninformed idealism that propelled the start of the pop-up trend is being replaced with cynicism. A critical eye on all and any appropriations of public and community spaces is healthy, no doubt. But it is also dangerous to reject anything that looks like spectacle, or like fun, because it won’t address structural injustice: If I can’t dance, etc. Amongst all the scripting and rules and fireworks, there is a playfulness in lots of pop-up stuff that shouldn’t be ignored. We can have the playfulness without the sense of entitlement, can’t we?

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Two festivals and their venues

This blog post is based on a presentation I gave at Besides the Screen at the end of November (see my previous post, Rituals of Cinema). This, the very first public appearance of my current research project, talked about two events I attended during the first month of the project, and about how they had started to shape new questions. The two events were Scalarama and the Southside Film Festival. I chose to compare them because both events position themselves very explicitly as a response to a lack or a loss of more institutional sites of exhibition (by which I mean full-time cinemas and arts centres). Since the theme of the conference was Methods and Materials of Curatorship, I was interested in how this response is connected with programming strategies that have their own logic. These observations were made in the early days of my research, and as I have not had direct contact with the organisers, they depend only on publicly available information.

My first example was the Scottish part of Scalarama (dubbed ‘Scaledonia’). Scalarama, briefly, is a season of film events loosely associated and supported which runs throughout September in many parts of the United Kingdom and beyond. It started in 2011 as a tribute to the Scala cinema in London, a repertory cinema with a cult following (Jane Giles is currently writing a book about the venue, which I look forward to reading). Its organisation is decentralised, as anyone who wants to have activities included in the programme is only asked to submit a declaration of principles.

Scalarama’s own manifesto starts with the demand to “fill the land with cinemas”, using their own minimal definition of cinema: wherever there is a film and an audience, there is cinema. Suggested location types include pubs and boats, and certainly all those kinds of spaces have been used for Scalarama-related events. You could think it ironic that a homage to an actual cinema should look for its place away from the cinema space; in that case, it might be reassuring that this year’s programme has such a high proportion of permanent cinema spaces as venues for Scalarama.

A classification of the 311 events mapped on the Scalarama website for this year shows that over two thirds of the screenings took place in cinemas, theatres, art centres or galleries; that is, in spaces that already have some form of institutional relationship with cinema. The other spaces mainly include bars and pubs, gardens, and community projects. The variety and quirkiness of the venues is perhaps less prominent this year that it has been previously, which might be a trend worth following. A more detailed look shows further patterns.

Some of the Scaledonia venues
Some of the Scaledonia venues

 

In Scotland, exhibitors taking part in Scalarama organised autonomously, calling their part of the festival ‘Scaledonia’. There were numerically more events in Scotland this year than in previous editions, but only nine venues. Two of these are arthouse cinemas: the Edinburgh Film House and the Glasgow Film Theatre, two are independent cinemas, the Grosvenor and the Birks, and two of them are arts centres. It is this latter category that covers more events and distorts the picture somehow.

This is because the Scalarama programme includes 27 screenings by SQIFF, the Scottish Queer International Film Festival, which ran for the first time this year. This collaboration is, to an extent, simply a consequence of both SQIFF and Scalarama happening at the same time, but it also meant that SQIFF could access Scalarama programming strands like the Shirley Clarke catalogue. Most of the SQIFF screenings take place at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow, which has become a convergence point for culture industry workers of different types, and the main site for non-profit film festivals in Glasgow. This is an interesting development, which speaks of a rather close relationship between the film and the art scene which is not entirely surprising in such a small milieu. It does however complicate the structuring distinctions of the field.

In her book Film Cultures (2002), Janet Harbord outlined the arthouse cinema and the gallery as two distinct sites for contemporary film exhibition, with their own embodied expectations. The proliferation of arts centres with dedicated screening facilities alongside gallery space, shops, cafes, and office and workshop space is as much a staple of contemporary urban culture as the flashy art galleries. Amongst this trend, the CCA is perhaps a slightly more politicised space, retaining some of its radical roots from when it started as the Third Eye Centre. Its centrality to Glasgow’s film culture has a parallel role to the more cinephiliac, middlebrow position of the Glasgow Film Theatre, only a few blocks away.

But what about the other Scaledonia venues? Three examples allow us to identify different curatorial strategies in operation.

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First we have a community cinema in a village hall, in Dunlop which is a village just outside Glasgow. The Community Cinema is supported by Cinema For All (British Federation of Film Societies) and Film Hub Scotland. So this is a regular provision with institutional support. As part of the BFI Film Audience network, locations like this one are the prime target for the curated seasons that the British Film Institute puts together. That constitutes the core of their regular programming. Through these networks, the volunteer-run (but very professional) cinema has access to curatorial expertise and practical support in dealing with distributors. The Dunlop Community Cinema also organise event screenings, such a tea dance to go with the re-release of Brief Encounter, and a Northern Soul night to go with the recently released film of that title. Their base at a multi-purpose hall with a licensed café is helpful, as the chairs can easily be put away for dancing and there is a proscenium stage for performances or presentations.

For Scalarama, Dunlop showed the 2012 film Hannah Arendt (Margarethe von Trotta), which linked the programme to the Directed By Women fortnight. Directed By Women is a campaign to encourage exhibitors to show films directed by women during the first two weeks of September, as a ‘worldwide viewing party’. This temporal overlap resulted in a collaboration with Scalarama, who launched ‘Project 51’ as an initiative with the aim of achieving gender equality in exhibition. Hannah Arendt was not, however, one of the core films offered by Scalarama, and even though it is a mainstream biopic, it was a surprising choice for a Saturday evening show, as it is a very discursive meditation on ethics and theory, and large parts of it are in German. It was also very different from other Scalarama-promoted films, as it is neither a cult movie or a nostalgic mainstream movie. This suggests that the association with Scalarama was contingent on the association with the Directed By Women. The volunteers were surprised that their cinema was featured in a national newspaper article about Scalarama, mentioned in the same sentence as the urban arthouse cinemas that seem as a world apart.

Closer to the Scalarama ethos was the screening of the Japanese film House (Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1977) organised by Matchbox Cineclub. This was run at the cine-club’s usual place, a bar in Glasgow city centre which has an upstairs room for music gigs, exhibitions, and a wide variety of weird stuff. The screening was on Matchbox’s usual monthly date. Matchbox have been running cult cinema screenings for several years, and this film was not out of character. It was known to the programmers, who have extensive expertise. The film has recently been released on DVD by Eureka, which is one of the distributors working in partnership with Scalarama. So while the Cineclub could have programmed the film at some point anyway, the Scalarama connection facilitated the process.

Finally, the #PeoplePower double bill was an initiative of the Radical Film Network that programmed the same two short documentaries about British activists, on the same date in different places around the UK. The Scalarama programme proposed,

“6 double-bill screenings of A Time Comes (2009) and McLibel (2005) happening up-and-down the country. The events aim to unite individuals within the screening space and foster dialogues of what we can do as individuals and as collective to effect change.”

The overlap of these two networks – Radical Film Network and Scalarama – introduces a politicised programming strand branching off the cult aspect. The Glasgow screening was organised by Document Human Rights Film Festival, who are local members of the Radical Film Network – so this thematic shift connects another organisation to the Scalarama scheme. This was a more purely one-off event, at a space with a history of activism. The Govanhill Baths is a public swimming pool that was closed and then occupied by the community. Several community groups and projects are run from its spare rooms. On the day of the screening, the venue had been awarded funding to restore and reopen the swimming pool, so there was a sense of victory. During the screening there was a collection for striking workers at the National Galleries and a solidarity group photo was sent.

These three examples, thus, engage with modes of practice that come from different traditions: the village hall cinema, the cult movie cine-club, and the activist screening. This draws attention to the very fluid convergence of cinematic practices made visible by something like Scalarama, which started as a celebration of a very specific type of cinema experience.

The Southside Film Festival in Glasgow is also, like Scalarama, referencing a loss, but it is a very different beast. This is a much smaller event, offering about two dozen screenings and several workshops over a weekend, and explicitly positioned in relation to a local history of cinema.

Some of the Southside Film Festival venues
Some of the Southside Film Festival venues

The 2015 brochure opened with this text:

“Southside Film Festival started in 2011 as a response to the lack of a local cinema or film screenings in the Southside of Glasgow. Four years later the festival reflects on the continued lack of a local cinema with the theme of cinema heritage and film archive.”

In this case, the pop-up strategy is not necessarily valorised in itself; it is presented as a response to a lack. In practice, however, there is a lot of creativity and pleasure in programming in unexpected spaces. This is a site-specific film festival; the choice of films responds to the choice of venues and the ancillary events available at these locations. So for instance pairing films with food, or using the Wurlitzer organ at the local town hall to accompany silent movies. This year the emphasis on history and archives was articulated through an exhibition about the old cinemas of the Southside, and an open call for home movies which were digitised and edited into short films and shown on the opening night.

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But for all that the festival is so explicitly invested in history, the old cinemas that still stand in the area are yet to be reclaimed for it. The exception is the large Pollokshaws Burgh hall. Here we have an example of a building that has hosted cinema for more than a hundred years without ever becoming a cinema. These histories about what, where, and when cinema is, and where it has been, continue to shape where cinema’s going, even through the apparently novel forms of exhibition practice. Over the next three years I hope to throw away these preliminary ideas several times over, and to make the acquaintance of many of those making cinema happen in every corner of Scotland. If you’re one of them – I’d love to meet you!

Conversatorio en La Chinca

Watching and hoping

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Colombia is a hopeful country. Against our best instincts, after nothing but catastrophic disappointments and broken promises, people hope that the current peace process will come to something. This is not naive hope – even in the best possible scenario, the current agreement will only address one aspect (and one actor) in our historical clusterfuck. But there is no other option. It is either trying again or accepting that the world’s oldest ongoing conflict is a permanent feature. Even those who want to continue the war sell their militaristic programme on the basis of hope: for security and growth.

In Colombia people think about identities. Not just academics either; concepts from critical theory (‘the other’, ‘symbolic violence’) permeate journalistic and political discourse. This much attention given to cultural or ideological categories in a country with so much material inequality and physical violence may seem surprising. And yet, in 2015 Colombian film production hit a record high of 36 feature releases, while around 80 film festivals are active. This is an unprecedented scenario, and the hopes are also high. It is therefore an interesting moment for me to go back to Santa Fe de Antioquia, a festival I had not been to in almost a decade. Much has changed.

On the year the Festival started, 2000, only four Colombian films had been released, and there was no structure for state support of film production, after the collapse of the previous awards and tax credits system. A critic remarked that year on “the precariousness of our environment and the effective lack of a national film industry”.1 In 2015, the festival starts with a morning meeting of the National Cinematography Council, a body that includes representatives from all branches of the trade (except, as a vehement student noted, the universities). It was set up to oversee the execution of the 2003 Film Law, which established a tax on exhibition, distribution and production to be reinvested in the making and promotion of Colombian films. Nowadays, most Colombian films receive some support from this fund, as well as using other tax incentives for national and international production. Festivals like this one also apply for these public funds, in combination with an intricate mix of in-kind or cash support (the programme lists over 20 supporters, plus a dozen media partners and a longer list of local businesses).

Santa Fe de Antioquia, 2000

An image from the first Santa Fe de Antioquia Film and Video Festival, in 2000. Taken from Kinetoscopio.

While this ensures a professional organisation and smooth delivery, this festival is not aiming to compete with Cannes. It doesn’t have the same purpose. The aforementioned critic also described the event as “after all, a provincial festival”. This is still true, though the festival’s sense of locality has changed. Initially the explicit purpose of the festival was to reinvigorate film culture in a town that did not have a cinema. There was a focus on engaging the local audience, not only as spectators but also as budding filmmakers. The festival’s relationship with the municipality and schools is still strong, and many locals do attend. However, the audience has changed since the start of the festival, due to the increase of tourism in the region, and the nurturing of an audiovisually inclined milieu in the many Media and Communications university programmes in the nearest city, Medellin.

Located in the valley of River Cauca, some 35 miles north-west from Medellin, Santa Fe de Antioquia has long been a tourist town, due to its hot, dry weather and colonial architecture. However, since the opening in 2006 of a new tunnel that shortened the travel time from Medellin in half, Santa Fe’s appeal has increased considerably. Wealthy Medellin couples choose it for picturesque weddings, thrill-seekers find a variety of lightly regulated adventure sports, and the less well-off visit on day trips by motorbike or bus. The festival’s own crowd, however, is mostly students, who come as much for the parties as for the films. Many of them are more interested in making films than in watching them, or at least watching them while sober. I don’t know why, but many people here really want to make films, and the festival has found ways to show their work to an audience mostly of peers. The talks, panels and workshops take a practical angle, from independent film production to film acting and 3D animation. There are also a number of open-air panel discussions with filmmakers and actors, a festival tradition. The presence of well-known actors (likely to be familiar to the audience through their work on television) continues to create popular interest in the academic programme.

Throughout the day, the programme of screenings, talks and workshops is spread around various indoor spaces in the town, through agreements with the municipal theatre, the Chambers of Commerce, the state university, and other public and private entities that have appropriate venues. The free-of-cost and unticketed nature of most events is in the festival’s ethos, but it creates a variety of logistical problems. During the day, the small spaces available are not enough to accommodate the demand; people were turned away from many of the screenings I attended. Many film festivals wished they had this problem – keen audiences for films that are not necessarily brand new or exclusive. Screenings of shorts by young and emerging filmmakers are also full to capacity.

Open-air screenings start at about 6.30 or 7pm, after the sun has set, and face other issues. The presenters introducing each screening explain their censorship rating and try to persuade parents to take home their children if the film has more adult content, like the lyrically sexual Cheatin’ (Plympton, 2013) which opened the festival. In any case, there are plenty of unaccompanied minors who are unlikely to heed the advice. The efficacy of the four walls and single entrance of a cinema as a device for exclusion is obvious by comparison.

Light pollution affects projection quality, but the audience is patient

Light pollution affects projection quality, but the audience is patient

Walls are also rather good at keeping light and noise out, and a tourist town on a busy weekend is definitely not a quiet place. The light from street lamps and shops makes the darkest parts of a dark movie, Violencia, completely undecipherable. The three quiet, naturalistic, devastating stories distil the tragedies and dignity of thousands of victims and survivors, and commit them to memory. They deserve better than competing for attention with the party music blaring from the corner of the park, or the tuk-tuks racing down the cobbled streets. And yet, it was important to have this film there, and La Tierra y la Sombra on the following night. This town has its own history of violence, and the watchful eye of the paramilitaries is still an unspoken presence in these colonial squares.

Panel discussion at Jesus Nazareno square

Panel discussion at Jesus Nazareno square

On Saturday evening, people are leaving mass at the Nazarene church, and in the cosy, secluded square outside it, a conversation follows two shorts. Like other events in the festival, the panel includes film actors and the director of Violencia. But the event is organised by the National Agency for Reintegration (ACR) and the International Organisation for Migration, and one of the other participants is a demobilised guerrilla combatant. As she speaks plainly of how hard it has been to work alongside the people she once fought, I fear for her. Some of her old enemies may still be circling around on their motorbikes, I think. She is brave, and speaking of peace here is a courageous act, and peace is going to take a lot of courage.

Trailer for Jorge Forero’s Violencia:

 


1Braulio Uribe, “I Festival de Cine y Video de Santa Fe de Antioquia: Pueblito de mis cuitas”, Kinetoscopio No. 58 (2001), pp. 107-111.


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My dad and his brothers, trying to look cool

Cine Mejoral

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When I spoke to my dad (pictured above, with my uncles, trying to look cool) about my current interest in non-theatrical exhibition, he told me again about ‘Cine Mejoral’. This was a free film show, projected on a wall, which he remembers attending when he was growing up in a small town, Chinchiná, in Colombia’s coffee region. He remembers sitting on benches in a patio with his brothers and friends, watching Westerns and Mexican films. It was the early 1960s and the town had a fine permanent cinema, where they would often spend “social triple” on a Sunday afternoon, but Cine Mejoral was free, as it was sponsored by Mejoral, a brand of painkillers. My mother, from a smaller town not far away (Pácora), also remembers these free film shows in the village square, projecting on the walls of a wealthy family’s house.

I remembered this story when Richard McDonald mentioned that some of the cinema vans used by itinerant projectionists in Thailand were bought from pharmaceutical companies. Of course, health campaigners and educators had been using mobile film units for quite a long time. In Colombia, the Ministry of Education had cinema vans at the end of the 1940s. But as soon as we started Googling, it became evident that Cine Mejoral was part of something pretty big.

Mejoral’s promotional cinema operations spread across Latin America, sticking to the same pattern. A simple search brings up examples in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Mexico, El Salvador, and Peru. In Colombia, I find a mention from the North-East border with Venezuela and the cold, remote highlands of the South. The stories are all very similar: the Mejoral van would turn up in the village, using a loudspeaker to announce the evening entertainment (hence Quechua speakers in Peru dubbed it ‘the talking car’). They would choose a wall, usually the outside of a school or municipal building, on the main square. People of all ages would turn up, sometimes bringing their own rugs or stools, to watch Westerns, slapstick comedies, and Mexican action films. They would bring snacks, typically local products like corn parcels (humitas) in Peru, or ‘cuca’ biscuits and cheese in Colombia. The nostalgic remembrances of these outdoor cinemas talk of the excitement and fun that they brought to these rural audiences.

The apparent uniformity of Cine Mejoral throughout its thousands of local instances across a very large region is interesting. So what’s behind it? A market expansion drive coupled with an ideologically motivated project of Continental integration. A perfect storm of capitalist interests, neocolonial politics, and mass media. All this to sell painkillers?

From the 1948-1949 ‘Mejoral’ calendar for Argentina

It’s a story that goes back to the aftermath of the First World War, when the German company Bayer was forced to give up their Aspirin trademark in the US and sell up to Sterling Drug. A later agreement allowed Bayer to retain the Latin American market for aspirin. Bayer was part of IG Farben and deeply entangled with the Nazi regime from the 1930s. As the US entered the war, reclaiming the Latin American consumer pharma market for American companies became as much a strategic goal as a commercial opportunity. The film trade press Cine Mundial reported in 1942 on the start of the Mejoral marketing campaign:

Sterling has 29 offices and 13 factories in our America, which will manufacture, advertise and sell new medicinal products to counteract the influence of German drugs. The campaign, of course, has the full support of each national government. (Cine Mundial Feb. 1942 p. 96)

Continental unity through shared cultural expressions was one of the strategies of the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (OCIAA), headed by Nelson Rockefeller during WWII. The OCIAA had been lobbying Hollywood to change their usually offensive representations of Latin America, as part of the ‘Good Neighbour’ policy . By the time the US entered the war, the Rockefeller Foundation had already experimented with Pan-American Radio programmes for a few years. Radio was thus the first line of work for the OCIAA, which, as Jose Luis Ortiz Garza explains, had four main propaganda goals, one of which was promoting “hemispheric solidarity”. Content was broadcast on short-wave from the US, recorded on discs for local broadcasting, or scripted to be recorded locally, and it included music, variety shows, thriller serials, and historical programmes.

Broadcast, May 1, 1944

Broadcast, May 1, 1944: Marketing solidarity by river boat

Archive research by Ortiz Garza shows that Sterling Drug (the makers of Mejoral) made a deal with the OCIAA in 1942 whereby the pharma company would buy over US$335k worth of airtime and print, and give 10% of it for OCIAA messages. Sterling also agreed to broadcast the OCIAA anthem and play it on its loudspeaker cars. Beyond its efficacy as direct propaganda, the huge publicity budgets invested by US companies in Latin American media was a bribe, or at least an enticement to toe the Allied line. Writing about Mexico, Ortiz Garza argues that

Many companies, apparently pursuing commercial goals, became peculiar branches of the propaganda or foreign affairs ministries. This was clearly noticeable in the case of manufacturers and distributors of patent medicines (n.d., p. 7, my translation)

Bayer had already had mobile cinema vans in Latin America, so when Sterling sought to claim the aspirin market for Mejoral, they had to step up. Without proper research it is impossible to say when exactly ‘Cine Mejoral’ was born, and with what equipment, and how its intricate routes were traced, or what role it had after WWII (which is when my parents remember it). This is exacerbated by the fact that ‘Cine Mejoral’ became a generic name for free outdoor screenings, which were later organised by the Church or the municipality. But whoever takes this on as a serious research project will be entering the fascinating realm where geopolitics and childhood experience come together around a sheet on a wooden frame, and the Lone Ranger gallops into a village square deep into the Colombian mountains.

 

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Rituals of Cinema

Besides the Screen is a research network initially funded by the AHRC and coordinated by Virginia Crisp (Coventry) and Gabriel Menotti (UFES). They have organised several international conferences and published a book, looking at all the stuff that happens around and through moving images – and not just at what’s on the screen. It seems like an appropriate way to inaugurate this blog, where I will also be thinking about cinema outwith (outside/beyond) the cinema.

Last month Gabriel, Virginia, and their collaborators organised a conference and series of workshops at the Federal University of Espiritu Santo, in Vitoria, Brazil (The event continued with three more days at Sao Paulo, but I wasn’t there). The topic was ‘Methods and Materials of Curatorship’, a broad remit that welcomed a variety of approaches, and allowed me to see some of my initial research questions in a new light.

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Besides the Screen is closer to the artists’ moving image end of the spectrum than my own (historical) research has been. Hence the question of curatorship was focused on the presence of the moving image in art contexts – the museum, the gallery – and the ways in which artists and curators have explored and reappropriated the screen and the screening situation (or ‘cinema effect’, as Viviane Vallades called it). These discussions, and the morning workshops on subjects from performance to Super8, synths to time machines, brought together a mix of artists, students, academics, and curators whose paths do not cross often.

The opening keynote was by Thomas Elsaesser, who used a concise history of the art museum’s relationship with the moving image to unpack some of its old tensions and more recent convergences. As he pointed out, the art gallery and the cinema call forth different regimes of attention. Back in the 1970s, the proponents of ‘apparatus theory’ explained how the darkened room and central projection made possible a particular intensity, while the narrative drive demanded a commitment to spend some time with the movie. While the cinema industry continues to pursue this idea of spectatorship, artists have been deconstructing its elements for decades.

An example that came up in several talks was Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho. This installation not only relocates the site of the screening of a the classic Hitchcock film from cinema to gallery via low-quality video transfer, but fundamentally challenges the viewer’s expectations about the time of a film. The narrative unfolds, but very slowly; watching the whole thing seems unreasonable, and yet, as Elsaesser argued, we feel bad for walking away. We will miss something. This frustration is amplified in the case of algorithmically generated artworks, as discussed by Sarah Cook in her keynote. In conceptual art, and more recently computer-generated art, there are many examples of works which consist of an instruction to be carried out, and the output of it may go on for an indefinite (or theoretically infinite) amount of time. So it may not be possible to ever see the whole work, or to even define its boundaries. While no cinema will waste its projector bulb on an empty auditorium, we assume a video will keep playing in an empty gallery, like the tree that falls in the forest.

But while I was contemplating such metaphysical matters, Richard McDonald brought us back to a more earthly Buddhist tradition. Richard has been researching a fascinating phenomenon I had never heard about: film shows given as offerings to the spirits in Thailand. There is a thriving business sector of very skilled projectionists, with huge, elaborate setups, who can be hired to show the latest Thai and Hollywood blockbusters at certain shrines, as part of a tradition of offering entertainment to ingratiate oneself with the spirits. While I am in no position to talk about the religious practice itself, as a cinematic practice it challenges many of my assumptions. According to Richard, the people who commission these spectacular shows often do not attend, and they are not intended for a human audience (though if people happen to be there, they are not rejected either). This, of course, does not mean that they are being screened ‘for nobody’ – there is an intended audience, it is just one we cannot see.

Cinema as ritual – it is hardly a novel idea, but the tension between Thai traditions and new media art got me thinking about its nuances. The elaborate set-up for the Thai travelling shows is an instance of the ‘relocation’ of some elements of the apparatus of institutional cinema, with an emphasis on seamless reel changes, sharp images, and immersive sound. However, I had assumed that the collective/public nature of the cinema experience was imbricated with its ritual dimension; that the social practice, rather than the apparatus, was what constituted the ritual of cinema. That does not get ‘relocated‘ in this instance, or in the gallery space showing an infinite video. The ritual screening does not imply or address a human cinema spectator. However, the projection must take place in order to fulfill the ritual, which has a social function in itself (as a conspicuous display and reproduction of various forms of capital). For the artwork to do its work, we have to believe it is playing when we’re not watching.

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My own research focuses on exhibition practices that do, in general, expect an audience. I was thus very interested in Virginia Crisp and Richard McCulloch’s work on the Prince Charles cinema in London and the ambivalent reactions of its more committed audiences to the notion of ‘experiential’ cinema. With its nostalgic or elitist attachment to particular practices of cinemagoing, cinephilia has its own ritualistic elements, although they seem easier to subsume into social mechanisms of distinction and identity formation. Virginia and Richard’s research, however, identifies a crucial difference between the sociable pleasures of collective cinemagoing and the ‘purely cinematic’ mode of experience, which seems to hint to a more intangible value. Understanding how ritual mediates subjective experience and social/institutional practices may be a way to look at these nuances in reception and meaning. Hence, bringing the language of ritual back into my analytical toolset may be useful.

After spending the last several years studying early cinema, the conference was an extremely vivid way to start thinking about the contemporary edges of the medium. I will write more about my own presentation and other topics later in this space.