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…

Cinema as occupation

This month started with a memorable couple of days racing around Glasgow to try and catch glimpses of the Radical Film Network festival and unconference. There was a lot on, and incredible variety, as many local groups and individuals organised screenings and events autonomously. We will be talking about it for months, but I wanted to try and start organising some thoughts emerging from some of the conversations that took place that weekend at the unconference, and from the unconference itself as a form of organising.

Chelsea facilitating the scheduling of unconference sessions

Chelsea facilitating the scheduling of unconference sessions

Many of the people who came to the unconference from outside Glasgow show films in places that are not cinemas (and some have started their own cinemas). Most of the screenings during the festival also took place in spaces that are not normally used for film exhibition. Although the RFN Scotland organising group deliberately avoided policing definitions of what’s radical (a point that keeps coming up for discussion in the broader context of the Network), a tacit alignment to the left was evident. The RFN’s website talks of “film culture for a fair, just and sustainable society”, which is obviously a pretty broad church. In practice, in the context of film exhibition at this particular juncture, this meant mainly non-commercial and/or underground practices.

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The events throughout the May Day weekend, like with most socially-engaged forms of film exhibition, had something in common: they used film to bring people to a place, in the hopes that a meaningful engagement would happen, that conversations would start. But just as often, it was the place itself that was an attraction, and the film screening was an opportunity to be in a space. Under the pretence of watching films we get to sit in a shop in the Barras market, the ruin of a church, a women’s housing co-op, or under the railway arches. Entering these temporary venues while thinking politically left me with some questions regarding film exhibition as a radical tactic.

Popular struggles have a long history of using physical presence in and control of a space as an effective form of pressure, but most importantly as a form of direct action (such as in factory work-ins and free universities).  The college sit-in and the landless farmers‘ unauthorised tilling are both forms of reclaiming a space and transforming it into the kind of space that is needed. Doreen Massey said of Occupy London that  it was “a real creation of a space of the kind that we need a lot more of. A space that brings us together to talk and to argue about the kind of future world we want”. At one of the unconference panels someone mentioned Hakim Bey’s concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ), a “free enclave […], a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it.” I will park the question of whether Occupy camps or other specific occupations are to be considered TAZs or not; it is the notion of ‘liberating an area’ that matters. In their reflection on film and resistance against the capitalist appropriation of urban space, Geraldine Pratt and Rose Marie San Juan argue that cinema can work as “a temporary suspension from everyday life, in which new relations can come into being” (2014, p. 176)

So in what ways is the event of cinema like an occupation?

There might be similar logistics: a need to provide creature comforts, whether that means central heating or open fire, plush seats or stacked pallets, a cocktail bar or a communal pot of soup. Conditions must be created that allow people to stay – and these obviously depend on how long people are planning to stay. This is particularly the case when the place under occupation is not one meant for living/for cinema: a factory, a city square, a university lobby. But just as important as the material conditions, the space has to be reinvented socially; it acquires new function and new meaning, and therefore new ways of behaving in it need to emerge. In a screening, the film is the backbone that makes the event understandable from the outside, imaginable, legitimate, even fundable. Getting together to watch a film makes sense to a lot of people; going to an odd place to meet with strangers and have an unplanned conversation, not so much (although if you frame it as an unconference it might even work!).

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Moving Parts and Revolutions

One of the challenges of inventing new spaces, especially liberated spaces or spaces for liberation, is that of finding ways to be together that are not mediated by institutional law and policing. The topic of safer spaces came up during the Community Cinemas roundtable towards the end of the festival. Do temporary cinema spaces need safer spaces policies to be upheld for their duration, alongside or replacing the tacit or explicit rules of the venue? With or without such policies, can organisers contribute to make these spaces more accessible and more radical than ‘standard’ cinemas by communicating a kind of ‘vibe’? An interesting idea that came up (from Liverpool’s Small Cinema, if I remember correctly) was to tell the story of the cinema, perhaps in the form of a short trailer before the movie, helping build the trust and sense of investment that can make the audience feel like a fleeting community.

But often the cinema isn’t at all like an occupation. To begin with, its presence in space is, for the most part, not oppositional in itself; it is allowed by the usual controllers of the space, often invited, in celebration rather than protest. (I need to write much more about Cinema Up‘s endlessly thought-provoking Radical Home Cinema programme, but that’s for later.) It is also important not to lose sight of the distinctiveness of cinema as aesthetic experience. It is still at a remove from life, and so it opens up opportunities for introspection and wonder that are often missing in the collective busyness of activism. In foregrounding film’s ability to congregate people, it is easy to forget the power of individual experience (especially when it takes place in public). As Pratt and San Juan hope, cinema can create “an actual concrete space.

Not just as a space to gather information but as a space of fantasy, imagination, affect, and bodily reverberation and resonance. Not just as a space of individual reflection but as a space of sociality and discussion.” (p. 176)

At the same time, the non-committed relationship that is established in the temporary community of the viewing audience is very different to the long-term solidarity required to sustain radical social action, or simply to survive oppression. So perhaps the parallels don’t stretch too far – but they might still offer useful sightlines to bring the political back into thinking the cinema space.


Pratt, Geraldine and Rose Marie San Juan (2014) Film and Urban Space: Critical Possibilities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.