P1080701

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

P1080684

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.

P1080704

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.

P1050762

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.

P1050783

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.

P1050770

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.

—–

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.