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MOVE

On Saturday 18 February 2017, as part of Glasgow Film Festival, the eighteen students enrolled in the Film Exhibition and Curation Masters at the University of Edinburgh presented “MOVE: A pop-up audio visual experience”. The event was part of coursework in their Applied Learning module. But it was not mere homework – it was an ambitious and inventive evening, taking more risks than any of the other pop-up screenings in the ‘Special Events’ strand. Instead of starting from a well-known feature film title and arranging the space and ancillary events around its plot and theme, the curators here started with a concept (move!) and experimented with its expression in and around film. Or rather – they dealt with the realities of putting on a show, collectively, over the holidays, on a tight budget, and with a big change of plans halfway through. As a learning experience, this is invaluable. I have had the pleasure to read some of the reflections produced by the students, which are nuanced and thoughtful and full of rich connections between the curatorial and film theory and their concrete project.

I had a chance to chat with about half of the group after their final lecture. They asked me to give collective rather than individual attribution to their remarks, and I have also paraphrased for clarity.

The Space

“This was one of the biggest challenges of the project, because we started with the idea that it was going to be happening at Waverley station, it was going to be a very different event. Then midway through the winter holidays that place fell through. and we had to completely reconfigure the way we thought, what this thing is, what the audience is going to do, what we are going to do, and Joytown found us”

One of the attractions of the event was its setting. Joytown is a new venue in a very old building. It is not, however, one of those obvious pieces of Victorian Heritage; it is, and has always been, an unassuming warehousey block where the attraction is inside. It is located on the North-Eastern edge of Glasgow’s city centre, a corner of the city that was badly mangled by the construction of the Glasgow Inner Ring Road in 1971. In the late 19th century, the Cowcaddens area had been notorious for its slum housing as well as its abundance of cheap music halls, theatres, and circuses. The building opened in the 1890s as part of the vast Olympia Hall, leased and transformed over the years by various entertainers who put on Wild West shows, pantomime, and variety. Most famously, it became the Scottish Zoo and Variety Circus in 1897, when legendary showman E. H. Bostock not only brought in exotic animals, but also the latest novelty – moving images.

Joytown Street View

After the First World War,  the building was put to various unglamorous uses, and languished for a while. In the 1990s, that corner of Cowcaddens was re-developed as ‘Chinatown’, with the opening of shops and restaurants to serve the Chinese community. The ground floor of the building now houses the Chinatown restaurant, a large cash-and-carry business and a seafood merchant. On the first floor, until last year, was Reardon’s Snooker centre. This is the part that is now being re-invented as Joytown, one of its old names. At the moment, however, it is a very austere space, to say the least.

“We started to believe in it when we saw the space. We had been taken aback by the change but also when we saw the pictures, we didn’t have a good feeling about that space, because it didn’t look like a space where you would have an exhibition. There was a lot of work to do to change it into something more welcoming to an audience […] It felt like a very big and empty space, so we had the challenge to visually fill it with our messages and the screen.”

The night before the screening there had been a clubnight at the venue so the curators had their work cut out. “We carried a lot of tables”… “we cleaned a lot on our hands and knees”… “Oh, the broken hoover!” The tables were set up cabaret-style. The decorations committee “used their own craft skills to make paintings, to make table decorations”: On each table there was a little battery-operated tealight and a bottle with the flag of an European country painted on it. There was also a programme with the film information and a postcard – a random, vintage postcard, on which the audience was invited to write their thoughts. The amount of collective effort put into the encounter with the audience was visible, and each element seemed to carry a different nuance of the overall sense of the event.

“I did some of my own research because I thought it would be a nice marketing tool. It used to be this massive entertainment complex and had the first zoo in Glasgow… there’s some weird history in that building. Films had been screened there since 1898, so we wanted to use that lineage. It underwent the history of many British cinemas, it was turned into a bingo hall and fell into disrepair, so we felt like ‘cinema is coming back, to where it once was’. I really enjoyed looking at that history.”

Having been used in various combinations of variety theatre, menagerie/zoo, fairground, cinema, skating rink and ballroom, that distant past of pictures and dancing is most appealing for a new life with, well, pictures and dancing. I knew about this history before coming to the event, and my experience was tinted by a yearning to find a connection to that past, to see a spark from their carbon arc projector shining through the century. For the less informed visitor, however, only the more recent history of the building is visible – emblazoned in its snooker livery and football score boards. It was up to the curators to tell a story about the space, as one of the various stories being told.

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When the students first visited the venue, owner Paul introduced them to the history of the building. While he knows about the older entertainment venue part of the story, he has been more keen to emphasise the Chinatown location. This was however seen to be somewhat incongruous with the film programme’s European focus. “He had this idea of putting up Chinese decorations. There were a few elements here and there but we didn’t want this to be at the heart of the exhibition because it would clash with our programme.” Furthermore, the notion of Chinatown did not seem to be particularly compelling for Glasgow residents, as the area is very small and does not have the same significance as in other parts of the world.

This difference in ideas did not get in the way of other aspects of the collaboration with the venue. The owner was on hand to arrange supply of drinks, staff the bar, sort out electrics and tech set-up, and book a DJ for the after-party. When the planned caterers fell through, he also offered “the local knowledge of where we could get the food”. This collaboration was acknowledged with gratitude, and it was also not one-way only. Apart from all the cleaning and tidying, the curators feel like their event has had a lasting impact on the venue.

“He was refurbishing at the same time, so in a way our event also shaped the place. He kept the paintings, he kept quite a few elements of our event so now it’s part of the identity of that space. We were building our event while he was building the space.”

One of those decisions that may have left an imprint on the configuration of the venue was the decision to curtain off a section at the back of the venue as a separate screening room. Here, a different programme of films was shown, including a mash-up of scenes of movement and travel from various movies. A few beach chairs offered a change of posture.

“We had this idea of two screens quite early on, which was another way to break the space up, to give another point of interest towards the back of the venue, and we felt like it gave our idea a bit more texture, to have this other gallery-type of exhibition and then the more cinema-type at the front […] We tried to play on the theme of discovery, people discovering the space without us telling them what to expect. People had to bump into this. It’s exciting when you find something in a space that not everyone knows about, this Secret Cinema notion. A mystery space, this extra layer that a few people knew about and then word of mouth spread it.”

A smoke machine was used in this space, drawing inspiration from the steam that billows around the first film of the programme, the Lumière Brothers’ Arrival of A Train to La Ciotat (1896). That ‘train steam’ had the double effect of making the projector beam visible, and evoking the smoke-filled atmosphere of an old cinema. If it wasn’t for the beach chairs this would be like a little nickelodeon, even if it was intended more like a black-box gallery projection room. I saw the same kind of partition used a few weeks later, when Glasgow Short Film Festival used Joytown as a ‘VR Palace’. This shows how MOVE!’s resourceful solution to make the vast open-plan space more interesting was noted and adopted, potentially informing future uses of the venue.

The programme

“It was more than just the films being screened, it was an event happening around us. The way we relayed this on social media was as ‘a cabaret event with film as its main act’, which I think is a nice way to frame it.”

The film component of the evening included ten short films in two sections. The order of the films was carefully planned for variety and balance, with each section featuring some animation, some dance, and some archive material. The programme was shaped equally by concept and necessity. Budget and time set boundaries as to what films could be included. “We were sourcing quite close to the event […] Especially the short films, it was about what we could get and then making it fit into the whole programme”. The challenge produced an inventive, surprising programme, enriched by live music, dance, and words. Two abstract films by Margaret Tait, chosen with advice from Tait expert Dr Sarah Neely, filled the room with colour and joyful music. This found a contemporary echo in the playful Latvian short Choir Tour (Edmunds Jansons, 2012), a crowd favourite. Two very different traditions of experimental film shifted the tone: First was Lithuania’s Ecce Homo (Vidmantas Baciulis, 1972), a once-supressed record of a theatre avant-garde with earnest liberatory politics; then, Enrico Cocozza’s Masquerade (1953) represented that bizarre mid-century moment when Scottish amateur cinema was equal parts bourgeois parlour game and Freudian adventure. Orgesticulanismus (Mathieu Labaye, 2008) was an incredible animation that re-imagined the joy of movement from the perspective of someone who has lost their physical mobility. Another animation and a dance video completed the two sets.

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At the heart of each half, however, was a 15 minute compilation of archive footage from the National Library of Scotland’s Moving Image Archive. The students had edited this, showcasing the new kinds of skills that the role of a moving image curator may entail in the era of Audiovisualcy. The band Sink accompanied the archive films with their delicate extemporising on accordion, violin and soprano saxophone. Their involvement came about through their previous work with producer Shona Thomson, who is a guest tutor on the MSc and mentored the students through the project. Shona has extensive experience producing live cinema events, especially working with archive film and live music. Last year she produced a Scotland-wide tour of the 1926 animated film The Adventures of Prince Achmed, with live accompaniment by Sink.

 

For the last film, two dancers performed in front of their screen, only their silhouettes visible against the bright colours. This spatial arrangement was unrehearsed, and the curators recognised that “the dancers were difficult to see [but] because where the projector was, the dancers went over the screen a bit, it was a nice relationship between the dancers and the films being screened.” While I could indeed barely see them from where I was sitting, their presence somehow grounded the evening’s theme with the corporeality of their movement: Liveness made tangible as a shadow on the screen. I was moved by the emergence of something new in that unrehearsed intersection between film, music, and bodies in movement.

“This constellation, with the music part, the dance part, the archive mixes we created for the event, is never going to happen again, so that makes it live and – we hate this word – a unique kind of thing. But I think it worked really well. Looking at the feedback, most people loved it; a few sceptics were looking at the dancers as being maybe too much distraction from the basic idea of accompanying archive film with live music. But I think everyone agreed that the music worked really well and it gave it this variety aesthetic and was also very spontaneous.”

Another aspect of cinema liveness that is easily taken for granted is the spoken word that precedes the films. Here the research and argument that underpin the programme are offered to the audience. The two presenters were confident and professional (though they say it is their first time), neither pompous nor patronising. Taking the introductions as a serious part of the programme, rather than a throwaway couple of lines, sets a good example for all film exhibitors. The Lithuanian film, which was perhaps the most challenging for the audience, was contextualised with an informative, poetic and passionate introduction, and the voice-over was translated live. This not only added to the sense of discovering a gem that we would have not found otherwise (brought back from the vaults of a national film archive), but also shows that the lack of subtitles is not a good enough reason not to screen something.

The audience

 “We didn’t expect people to stay sitting for the whole time, and most of them didn’t move from their seats.”

The change of venue from Waverley Station to Joytown entailed a complete rethink of the audience and of the behaviour expected of them. “When it was going to be in Waverley, it was the intention that it would be on a big screen and people would be walking through, there wasn’t going to be any seating. We imagined an audience that would be there for fifteen minutes, watch it and then move on. So when it became Joytown suddenly we had an evening when people were going to come in and sit down, and watch something.”

This image of the transient audience metamorphosed into an idea of a somewhat mobile audience. Rather than being set up in rows, seating was around tables, and the offer of a free drink and availability of a couple of food options were intended to encourage people to move around the space. The fragmented nature of the programme also provided more ‘exit points’ for anyone wanting a change of scene, and this was reassuring for the programmers, as it took some pressure off the main selection: “Because we were not so confident that our main screen would attract so much attention, that people might get distracted, we wanted to have other things on the side”. However, people had other ideas: “The main programme was really successful, people were captivated by the main exhibition.” Hence, that mobile audience didn’t really materialise on the night. The lights were kept on during the archive films, while the band played. When the lights went down, however, it was interesting to observe how people interpreted this a command to be quiet and watch the film.

 

P1050757 This was interpreted by some of the curators as a result of conventional expectations: “I think it’s the habit…  You buy a ticket to see something and people don’t think of getting up, because you have the screen, something’s on, and even live music, what else do you want? I think people were happy to sit down and enjoy the show in a relatively passive way.” At the same time, there are also things that could have been done differently: “For people to move around more, we could’ve spaced the tables more […] it could have been longer, there could’ve been more time, longer breaks, longer pauses. We could also have offered more of an incentive for people to get up, like more food […] the realities of having to organise the event meant some of those extra things fell through.”

In other aspects, however, audience response was closer to that envisioned. People ‘got’ the theme and enjoyed making connections between the films. The breadth of the topic created space for thinking, and there was an invitation to share those thoughts on assorted vintage postcards which allowed for a more personal, less tick-box approach to feedback.

“The postcards gave us so many things to reflect on. I was struck by how many different interpretations they had about what we were trying to say with the programme, but how they were all floating around the same kind of idea of unity and connection across borders and barriers. I think we did somehow create some clear message that people picked up on, but that was almost accidental. We felt like it was a bit random what we were doing and it was all driven by necessity and circumstance”

The gap between the raucous, mercenary Joytown of a hundred years ago and the thought-provoking experience offered that night is unbridgeable. This is not a zoo nor a carnival. However, this is still a space for thrills. An interesting observation is that the novelty of the space contributed to the audience’s willingness to engage with an unexpected, experimental programme:

“Because this venue is not a traditional theatrical screening venue, I feel like the people are happy to sit there to receive something that is new […] If we had screened the whole programme in a traditional theatre, it wouldn’t have worked, the effect wouldn’t have been as good. The mix of live music, the bar – it is a new experience. People were taking pictures of the space, as well […] as somewhere they hadn’t been before, that was really exciting, and then running these different films to them in this completely new space”.

Towards the end of our conversation, the group tell me that their tutor, Susan Kemp, described the event as ‘a happening’, and they have come to identify with that label. In its situated activation of a curated programme, its one-night-only alchemy, MOVE was perhaps more purposeful than a traditional ‘happening’. However, it embraced the openness of the moment, it allowed meaning to emerge in the gaps between things. MOVE was full of experimentation and discovery, it challenged its creators as much as it rewarded its audiences, and it’s difficult to imagine a more successful learning experience for these emerging curators.

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Post-script: The first published version of this post implied that only a mash-up loop was shown in the partitioned space, and therefore missed the connection to the Lumière film. I am grateful to Noemi who contacted me with additional information and corrected this imprecision.

 

Thank you to the students who shared their time and reflections with me: Noemi Lemoine Blanchard, Camilla Baier, Rachel Pronger, Lennard Kroeger-Petersen, Guangyun Liu, Katy Wale, James McLaren, Paulina Drėgvaitė, Federico D’Accinni, Richard Tanner, Amy Lea.

Thank you to Susan Kemp and Jane Sillars, directors of the MSc.

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…