The Film Effect VI

Notes on Immersion versus Dispersion: What is Expanded Cinema Today?

Expanded cinema might be described as a number of things. It might be multi-screen video installations that immerse the viewer, who wanders into a room flooded by the screens’ light and sound. It might be film that is projected onto the facades of buildings, as Krysztof Wodiczko did in the 1980s. Or it might be expanded so much that activities surrounding its production, such as improvisational rehearsal, scriptwriting and filming become part of its practice-, rather than product-based, form.

The first type of expanded cinema mentioned here – the immersive multi-screen installation – emerged as an influential form in the 1990s, when artists wanted to free film and video from the monitor (and its associations with domesticity, interiority and closed-systems), and project material in a way that engaged the viewer in a more physical manner.
Projection, from pro-jacere, to throw out, indicates the disruption of the ocular-centric mode of traditional projection that was contained in a monitor or screen, and only allowed the image and viewer to go ‘so far’. By projecting image and sound directly onto the wall, mediating ‘containers’ are done away with. And by projecting onto two or more walls, the viewer is brought directly into the experience, rather than offered ‘an object’ at which to gaze. These points, however, only go so far because projecting into a room is surely still projecting into a container that is like an enlarged monitor or screen. Thus, when the room is a black box inside a white-cube gallery, the situation is more sanitised and less immersive than the artists and gallerists involved would have us think.

Diana Thater

Doug Aitken

Doug Aitken

Douglas Gordon

In Video projection: The Space Between Screens, Liz Kotz writes about artists such as Douglas Gordon, Doug Aitken and Diana Thater who exemplify the successful practice of gallery video-installation. Kotz implies that the marketability of their work plays a large part in their success,[1] but does not go much further. Aitken’s work often feels as if it is filmed mindful of the screen-stills that can be sold for profit in the gallery, alongside the black box with projection inside. Indeed, Kotz writing feels market driven, insisting on form as opposed to the content, context or larger implication of any of the films. In its very form, film is inseparable from context: action is constantly moving in and out of the frame, being influenced by exterior forces, yet Kotz does not address the commercialism of the films she mentions. Gordon’s 24-Hour Psycho, for example, achieves its success in great part through its audience’s recognition of Hitchcock’s original footage. Although it might not be displayed in a television or traditional cinematic context, it still uses that culture for its content and popularity. Likewise, although Kotz is writing about a relatively ‘new’ art form, her standpoint is of the ‘salon’ of acceptable and commercially viable forms. Thus, Thater’s recent installation at Hauser and Wirth (in which images of Chernobyl are projected on walls on which viewers cast their shadows), and Philippe Parreno’s installation of four screens in four rooms of the Serpentine (which viewers watch in a sequence determined by which film is projecting at the time), may seem at first to be unmarketable art (who could buy an immersive film projection?), but in fact cooperate with the system of the gallery as a space for spectacle. Viewers are impressed, and encouraged to desire products that derive from the projections, such as high-quality prints or books. In Parreno’s case, the projected images are as professionally glossy as advertisements.

Andreas Gursky

Eija-Liisa Ahtila

Philippe Parreno

Gregory Crewdson

Jeff Wall

Jane and Louise Wilson

Stan Douglas

In many of Thater’s installations, projectors and electrical cables form paraphernalia that confirm to the audience the pieces’ identity as ‘modern art’ that foregrounds its technical support. In one sense, Thater is using, rather than rejecting, the equipment associated with television and cinematic projection that other artists such as Wodiczko made less visible. But conversely, this equipment is a fashionable prop that distracts from the aim of immersing viewers in the film, or emphasising their presence in the space; techniques that might once be startling very easily become anticipated mannerisms.

An alternative to Thater’s type of installation is projecting film in a black box space evocative of the cinema, as is the case with Luke Fowler, Duncan Campbell, Christian Marclay, Elizabeth Price and Ben Rivers’ current installations at The Hayward and Matt’s Gallery respectively. Although historically conventional, it is this technique of darkened room and surround sound that results in our immersion and loss of self in the films: rather than feel ourselves in the space, interrupting the projection, we feel ourselves inside each film. While advocates of Thater et al. might argue that her type of installation is about a Brechtian alienation and exposition of projection forms, it is perhaps too contrived, whereas Christian Marclay encourages his audience to experience the cinema and be in its thrall, and thereby become aware of its construct. By avoiding ‘throwing out’ the form of cinema, one could say he is expanding it. In the cases of Rivers and Fowler, the bĂȘte lumineuse – the projector – is given a presence in the space, either being positioned in the foyer for the audience to pass en route into the auditorium (Matt’s Gallery) or in close proximity to the audience, just behind the viewing bench (The Hayward). In this way, the projection technology is explicit yet absolutely necessary, and appropriate to the work: the darkened cinematic and ‘period’ atmosphere of the 16mm films requires the whirring and light-beam casting projector. In Thater’s case on the other hand, the preponderance of cables implies a fashionable surfeit.

Glenn Ligon

The Otolith Group

Other artists expand the notion of cinema by embracing its technical flaws – for example scratches made on a film reel or audiotape, signal loss in video, and blips conjured by transferring from film to video. As Hito Steyerl writes in her essay In Defence of the Poor Image, the artwork is battered and bartered, and becomes something of its own in this high-velocity alteration and disruption of expectation. Glenn Ligon’s 2008 film The Death of Tom is a blur of black and white grainy tones, its 16mm film a scratched solidification of time in which the original footage (the 1963 film Uncle Tom’s Cabin) has almost disappeared due to change. Ligon sets the film to Jason Moran playing a jazz piano piece based on a vaudeville song Nobody, its title evoking both the disappearance of identity in the original film’s story and the disappearance of image in the new film. If projection relates etymologically to the process of dislocation or ‘throwing out’, then Ligon’s film plays with the notion of dislocating original and new film, image, sound, recognisable footage and abstraction. And as with the element of projection that unites (light and sound projected in a room can encourage the four walls to relate to one another, the projection ricocheting around the space, contained and made to bounce), Ligon’s film creates a soft, melancholic atmosphere in its space of projection that is all black, lighting up when white comes on screen. The music is equally intimate. 

The third group mentioned in the introductory paragraph is a collection of artists who expand the cinematic production practice to include the conception and rehearsal of films, the publication of imaginary screenplays (Bernadette Corporation’s Eine Pinot Grigio Bitte) and essays (The Otolith Group’s exhibition for this year’s Turner Prize included a round table, reading lamps, chairs and several books to contextualise the film Otolith III, which was projected in the space). In his essay Moving Images Moving Images, John Kelsey writes how cinema-going used once to be a far more spontaneous affair, with furniture that could be moved around, conversation in the auditorium allowed, and film reels shown in different orders each time. He then suggests that recent expanded cinema projects such as Bernadette Corporation’s Pedestrian Cinema are returns to this freer and more festive approach. Whereas audience and film are clearly separated in other cinematic work (Thater, Fowler, Marclay), Pedestrian Cinema invites the audience to participate in workshops, casting, writing and rehearsals. Taking place in Berlin, it was an example of a regeneration project that then visited other European cities. Rather than aiming for a finished product, the project was ‘a means without end’,[2] other than participation. In comparison with other cinema, then, this practice facilitates a theatre of exchange and flux between film and audience.

However, Bernadette Corporation’s practice is perhaps not so expansive as Kelsey has us think; for one, it remains in a European, urban network of liberal arts audiences. Its film Get Rid of Yourself borrows much footage from Internet and television sources:  many of the places depicted have not been visited or experienced first hand by the filmmaker participants. While the title Get Rid of Yourself might suggest that first hand experience and footage is unnecessary in an era of global news, political activism and networking, the film nevertheless feels tied to a particular, European context.

The film includes images of the September 11th attacks and the 2002 G8 demonstrations that turned violent in Genoa, examples of conflict between globalisation and its critics. The images are frequently shocking, despite existing wide-coverage: the collapse of the Twin Towers still looks striking, as do scenes of the Black Bloc and vandalism. Yet the film tries to question the images’ currency (recalling Godard in Ici Et Ailleurs) by employing i-movie type gimmick effects (plumes of smoke rising from the Towers are turned into a mirror image split-screen; a helicopter circling over Genoa is multiplied into a grid format on the screen; Chloe Sevingy plays an actress learning lines that we have just heard delivered more realistically by a witness to the protests, we assume). As the Black Bloc destroy the possibility of visual identification through using uniform masks and tear gas, the film refuses to grant us the ‘right’ to credible imagery: everything, it says, is mediated and not to be trusted. Yet, while it is perhaps true that the film performs the failure of the image, it must also be recognised that it gains its political and ‘shock’ value from those very images: in this way, it is problematic because it ‘has its cake and eats it’. Perhaps its problem is that it feels like a staged, rather than genuine, performance of deconstruction. But, as with Godard, this confusion is part of the film’s complexity and echoes that of the situation. It is unresolved and questioning.

The Otolith Group’s trilogy of films entitled Otolith I, II and III have similar, but wider reaching, aims to Bernadette Corporation’s Get Rid of Yourself, spanning from Britain to India, and looking with greater attention at history (further back than September 2001). In this way, the Otolith Group’s practice experiments with Deleuze’s idea of the crystal-image from which a complex fluctuation of concepts refracts, and is opposed to a more simply structured Hegelian dialectic. In the crystal-image, antagonistic complexities occur, evoking a rhizomatic structure. And, as with the rhizome, a genuine performative approach is required – hence the Otolith Group’s travelling and research methods. If we borrow Lacan’s diagram of the reciprocal theatre of the gaze, in which the viewer looks through the image at the subject of representation, and that subject, in turn, affects the viewer back across the ‘screen’ that exists between them, then the Otolith Group are working this theatre, testing its already expansive shape, pushing, conversing, writing, performing, and screening cinema further and further.

[1] Kotz, L (2008) ‘Video Projection: The Space Between Screens’ in Leighton and Esche (eds.) Art and The Moving Image: A Critical Reader London: Afterall
[2] Kelsey, J (2008) ‘Moving Images Moving Images’ in Leighton and Esche (eds) Op. Cit.

with thanks to Maxa Zoller.