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Architectures

Last week I was in Liverpool, where the Biennial of Contemporary Art was just getting started. It took me by surprise – I was just there to look after someone else’s cats and write – but one look at the brochure made me take notice: so much video. Of course, the video projector is by now as fully integrated into the art world as the sculptural plinth, and the black box is very much an expected part of the white cube. Conversely, as Maeve Connolly argues in The Place of Artists’ Cinema (2009), the gallery has become another ‘alternative’ screening venue within film culture, holding a space for the ‘gallery film’, the experimental and anti-mainstream. This alterity is not only concerned with the formal dynamics of the works, but with the relationship they propose with the viewer, with heightened awareness of the reception space and a break from theatrical cinema etiquette and expectations.

On the opening night, Agnès Varda appeared on stage at FACT, in a warm and stimulating conversation with superstar curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, to introduce a retrospective of her work and a new commission. Varda has brought to Liverpool a three-screen work presented in a gallery, and with characteristic generosity she invites viewers to be lost and to consider the possible connections between the three images, to let them ‘tickle the mind’, and to see how these images make them feel, what they remind them of. In the conversation, she reflects on the reception conditions of gallery projection versus the cinema, and embraces the instability of meaning that the encounter offers:

“these images are proposed to be seen together, sometimes in silence, sometimes with sound. […] Sometimes we must accept there is no meaning, there is only impression, physical reaction of the eye, the ear, the situation of your own spirit when you come in, maybe the day after you’ll see it differently”

Empty Spaces Cinema at George Henry Lee building

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Camp and Furnace

I didn’t get to see Varda’s installation. I did catch a bit of a screening put on by Empty Spaces Cinema in the cavernous basement of the George Henry Lee building as part of the Independents Biennial. I also saw a bit of football on a big screen at the Baltic Triangle, where every other warehouse seems now to be a gig venue with pop-up screenings. Like with the gallery film, the differences between big-screen football and cinema are those of social convention; it is the same apparatus. There is plenty of untapped richness in that ambiguity; in Glasgow, earlier this year, the Goethe Institut put on a live-score screening of a Germany match. And then you’ve got Zidane, the feature-lenght film made by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno following the player through a whole game. As Connolly points out, Zidane premiered at Cannes, was then screened in a stadium at the Basel art fair, and circulates in galleries as an art object, a ‘double-channel limited edition’ (26). Video works like this then have a multiple existence and blur the boundary between film festival and art biennial. However, the history of artists’ moving image is also closely linked to site-specificity and installation. It is still in this centrifugal relation to the world that the strongest works emerge.

I was very moved by Two Meetings and a Funeral (2017), a three-channel film by Naeem Mohaiemen installed in the courtroom at St George’s Hall. The work is an 85-min documentary about the Non-Aligned Movement, a transnational political project that perhaps people in the global North haven’t really heard much about, but which is at least a familiar phrase to those of us who grew up in the Third World when it was still called that.

 

The camera enters the Palais des Nations in Algiers, where the 4th summit of Non-Aligned countries took place in September 1973. Archive footage and interviews reconstruct the historical density of the occasion, with Fidel Castro holding court and Kwame Nkurumah denouncing the ongoing attack on Allende’s socialist government in Chile, which would culminate in the bombing of the presidential palace and the start of Pinochet’s dictatorship two days after the end of the Algiers summit. The film lets us take in both the high-minded critiques of imperialism that made nationalism seem like a viable plan for decolonisation, and the macho intrigues that morphed into dictatorships instead of the liberation promised. There is a theme of unrealised utopia, almost a fatalistic sense of impossibility undermining the exhortations for unity and self-determination. The three-channel composition allows for some formal strategies not usually available to single-screen films, counterpoints and explanations running alongside rather than cutting into each other: it is a good documentary. But its installation in Liverpool lifted it beyond its informative, reflexive approach to history. The three screens are neatly set up in the middle of a court room, which is reached after walking through the dungeons now set up as a history display memorialising the thousands of poor who suffered here.

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Three-channel video in the courtroom

In the film, there are long sequence shots that circle around La Coupole, a sports stadium designed by Oscar Niemeyer in Chéraga, Algeria. In the archive footage, gymnasts on the asymmetrical bars twist and spin; now, this is a modern white elephant which costs too much to maintain. Then there are the open-air corridors and flat plazas with water features to freshen up tropical afternoons. I felt at home in those spaces. I recognised the utopian architecture of the university where my parents met and also of the university that formed me. Yet here I was, watching it in the oppressive space of a windowless court room, all dark polished wood and injustice, thousands of miles away.  The spacious and abstract (and yes, also inhuman) architectures of Algiers belong to a different order than this Neoclassical behemoth, with its penitentiary system hidden behind a concert hall, its Roman columns and equestrian statues. St George’s Hall is an imperial statement piece. La Coupole is meant to be an anti-colonial one, but the film wonders whether that struggle needed the grandiloquence of monuments.

It has been a year of trying to settle accounts with 1968 and its legacies. On Friday, Big Adventure Cinema, who are on course to build a new community cinema for Liverpool after the closure of the Little Cinema, hosted a screening of Made in Dagenham, preceded by the 1971 Ken Loach short Talk About Work, and discussed by four women who worked in the local Ford plant (Halewood) and took industrial action for equal pay during the disputes depicted in the film. The screening took place in the Casa, a pub and venue whose story goes back to the Dockers’ strike in the late 1990s. In the audience were current workers at the Halewood plant (which is now Jaguar Land Rover) and trade unionists with similar experiences in other sectors. This framed the screening of this fairly mainstream independent film in a context that was both celebratory and educational. A recurring theme was the vacillation between recognising the achievements of the workers in the 1960s who fought for equal pay legislation, and raising awareness that in practice the gender pay gap continues to exist. 

There is a melancholy to radical history, particularly now when the forces of Fascism have more power than they had had since the 1930s. Was it all in vain? Well, the game isn’t over. (Even if the World Cup is). In between our anger and our grieving, we must find space for some learning, some thinking about the past and the future. These two screenings, both political, both site-specific, deploy very different strategies for their critical historiography: architectural dialectics and local personal experience.

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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.