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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.

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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!