Rituals of Cinema

Besides the Screen is a research network initially funded by the AHRC and coordinated by Virginia Crisp (Coventry) and Gabriel Menotti (UFES). They have organised several international conferences and published a book, looking at all the stuff that happens around and through moving images – and not just at what’s on the screen. It seems like an appropriate way to inaugurate this blog, where I will also be thinking about cinema outwith (outside/beyond) the cinema.

Last month Gabriel, Virginia, and their collaborators organised a conference and series of workshops at the Federal University of Espiritu Santo, in Vitoria, Brazil (The event continued with three more days at Sao Paulo, but I wasn’t there). The topic was ‘Methods and Materials of Curatorship’, a broad remit that welcomed a variety of approaches, and allowed me to see some of my initial research questions in a new light.


Besides the Screen is closer to the artists’ moving image end of the spectrum than my own (historical) research has been. Hence the question of curatorship was focused on the presence of the moving image in art contexts – the museum, the gallery – and the ways in which artists and curators have explored and reappropriated the screen and the screening situation (or ‘cinema effect’, as Viviane Vallades called it). These discussions, and the morning workshops on subjects from performance to Super8, synths to time machines, brought together a mix of artists, students, academics, and curators whose paths do not cross often.

The opening keynote was by Thomas Elsaesser, who used a concise history of the art museum’s relationship with the moving image to unpack some of its old tensions and more recent convergences. As he pointed out, the art gallery and the cinema call forth different regimes of attention. Back in the 1970s, the proponents of ‘apparatus theory’ explained how the darkened room and central projection made possible a particular intensity, while the narrative drive demanded a commitment to spend some time with the movie. While the cinema industry continues to pursue this idea of spectatorship, artists have been deconstructing its elements for decades.

An example that came up in several talks was Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho. This installation not only relocates the site of the screening of a the classic Hitchcock film from cinema to gallery via low-quality video transfer, but fundamentally challenges the viewer’s expectations about the time of a film. The narrative unfolds, but very slowly; watching the whole thing seems unreasonable, and yet, as Elsaesser argued, we feel bad for walking away. We will miss something. This frustration is amplified in the case of algorithmically generated artworks, as discussed by Sarah Cook in her keynote. In conceptual art, and more recently computer-generated art, there are many examples of works which consist of an instruction to be carried out, and the output of it may go on for an indefinite (or theoretically infinite) amount of time. So it may not be possible to ever see the whole work, or to even define its boundaries. While no cinema will waste its projector bulb on an empty auditorium, we assume a video will keep playing in an empty gallery, like the tree that falls in the forest.

But while I was contemplating such metaphysical matters, Richard McDonald brought us back to a more earthly Buddhist tradition. Richard has been researching a fascinating phenomenon I had never heard about: film shows given as offerings to the spirits in Thailand. There is a thriving business sector of very skilled projectionists, with huge, elaborate setups, who can be hired to show the latest Thai and Hollywood blockbusters at certain shrines, as part of a tradition of offering entertainment to ingratiate oneself with the spirits. While I am in no position to talk about the religious practice itself, as a cinematic practice it challenges many of my assumptions. According to Richard, the people who commission these spectacular shows often do not attend, and they are not intended for a human audience (though if people happen to be there, they are not rejected either). This, of course, does not mean that they are being screened ‘for nobody’ – there is an intended audience, it is just one we cannot see.

Cinema as ritual – it is hardly a novel idea, but the tension between Thai traditions and new media art got me thinking about its nuances. The elaborate set-up for the Thai travelling shows is an instance of the ‘relocation’ of some elements of the apparatus of institutional cinema, with an emphasis on seamless reel changes, sharp images, and immersive sound. However, I had assumed that the collective/public nature of the cinema experience was imbricated with its ritual dimension; that the social practice, rather than the apparatus, was what constituted the ritual of cinema. That does not get ‘relocated‘ in this instance, or in the gallery space showing an infinite video. The ritual screening does not imply or address a human cinema spectator. However, the projection must take place in order to fulfill the ritual, which has a social function in itself (as a conspicuous display and reproduction of various forms of capital). For the artwork to do its work, we have to believe it is playing when we’re not watching.


My own research focuses on exhibition practices that do, in general, expect an audience. I was thus very interested in Virginia Crisp and Richard McCulloch’s work on the Prince Charles cinema in London and the ambivalent reactions of its more committed audiences to the notion of ‘experiential’ cinema. With its nostalgic or elitist attachment to particular practices of cinemagoing, cinephilia has its own ritualistic elements, although they seem easier to subsume into social mechanisms of distinction and identity formation. Virginia and Richard’s research, however, identifies a crucial difference between the sociable pleasures of collective cinemagoing and the ‘purely cinematic’ mode of experience, which seems to hint to a more intangible value. Understanding how ritual mediates subjective experience and social/institutional practices may be a way to look at these nuances in reception and meaning. Hence, bringing the language of ritual back into my analytical toolset may be useful.

After spending the last several years studying early cinema, the conference was an extremely vivid way to start thinking about the contemporary edges of the medium. I will write more about my own presentation and other topics later in this space.