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.

P1030513

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.

twofestivasl03

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.

twofestivasl05

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!