[Filmmakers] explored different ways of linking the diverse physical equipment; one of their solutions would eventually be endorsed as “normal” (camera / projector / screen / screening room) the others to be considered “expanded” cinema. Yet it is this “normal” solution which should by all rights and purposes be dubbed “restricted cinema,” precisely because experimental film reminds us of so many other possibilities….

— Nicole Brenez, “Jeune, Dure et Pure: A history of avant-garde and experimental film in France”

I was unsure about skipping this year’s Cork Film Festival at first. Despite a mostly lacklustre programme, it did boast one very interesting event involving British experimental filmmaker John Smith, who I had met a few weeks earlier at the Lucca Film Festival. Smith’s series of hotel video diaries were to be screened for the first time all together…and they were to be screened in John Smith’s hotel room—the kind of alternative screening set-up I’ve becoming increasingly interested in. However, intriguing an experiment as this sounded, taking place in Dublin at the same time was an even weirder expansion of a film screening environment. “Zero Degree: The New Image of Thought” was a three-night exhibition of avant-garde cinema, curated by Esperanza Collado and taking place at Thisisnotashop gallery. The exhibition, coinciding with the release of the new issue of Collado’s avant-garde zine, Spectrum, projected films simultaneously onto each wall of the tiny one-room gallery: for the most part, one filmmaker per wall per night.

The open shop-window front of the gallery meant you could also see the films from the streets, from the tram which passes right outside its door, or on the window’s reflection if you were on the inside. This decentralised layout managed to feel both open (no set place to stand, no set place to look) and invasive (wherever you looked, there was moving images, and wherever you stood, you were in someone’s line of sight) and raised several interesting questions about the spectator’s role in the situation: namely, what do you do in a space like this? What’s the etiquette? How are you supposed to view the films? Until Collado set a few things straight in her introduction, most people had been politely hushed and awkwardly huddled in different corners, focusing on one screen and trying their best not to get in anyone else’s way. But such an approach was awkward for a reason; Collado explained she’d set up the projections to mitigate precisely against that kind of reverent, mannered passivity. Stand wherever you like, she urged; talk, drink, laugh—block the projectors if you want. Things loosened up from that point onwards: people would stand outside chatting and glancing in, or converse inside with films projecting on their faces. Then they might wander around, soaking up the films silently until they bumped into someone else. This freeform arrangement shifted and varied, ebbed and flowed, depending on how many people were in the room, who those people were and, of course, what films were on the walls.

The films chosen were an impressive cross-section of the canonic avant-garde—Paul Sharits and Peter Kubelka’s flicker films, William Burrough’s cut-ups, Stan Brakhage’s moving paintings, Bruce Conner’s found footage poems—as well as one artist, Takahiko Iimura, that I hadn’t heard of. Things didn’t stick exactly to the written programme, however, and different films were screened different nights depending on the mood and audience requests. The overarching theme, as expanded on in the tie-in issue of Spectrum, was the interval—a philosophical/theoretical concept which is so simple and elemental and it can be extremely confounding (especially if you try reading Gilles Deleuze for an explanation). Here’s my crude understanding: the interval is just that; the interval, the gap between. This can be between one shot and another, one frame and another, between the projector and the image, or the image and the spectator. It’s that moment of between-ness, in any case; neither one thing or the other, but defining both by its absence. It’s a fitting theme for an exhibition that experiments with that encompassing and immensely powerful interval: space.

I’ve written before about the limitations of the contemporary fashion of spatial or environmentally focused art, but the distinction between “Zero Degree” and something like Antony Gormley’s Blind Light is that Collado makes no claims that her spatial arrangement is the artwork itself, nor does the spectator (participant is perhaps a better word…) tend to think of it that way. Rather, it’s a form of curatorial intervention; a display of artworks designed to facilitate certain kinds of engagement and relationship and obstruct others.

I know a good few cinephiles who would positively detest such an irreverent set-up (and it’s significant that the bulk of those who attended the films were engaged in the fine art scene). Indeed, some people in attendance expressed frustration at the difficulty of concentrating or becoming absorbed by one particular film. Given the increasing ubiquity of moving images in the modern world and the corresponding proclivity to scan over them and move on, never really looking deeply, I can appreciate this attachment to concentration and absorption. But at the same time, as someone who feels deeply ambivalent about the innately passive and escapist tendencies of the traditional cinema-going set-up, I welcome any attempts to subvert it. Unlike most film festivals (with the recent wonderful exception of Lucca), in which activities are starkly segregated between sitting-down-watching-films time and getting-drunk-and-schmoozing-time (basically nothing more than intensely concentrated versions of the two hugely dominant forms of social activity in Ireland), “Zero Degree” blends artistic and social experience together in a way that ultimately enriches both of them.

Marshall McLuhan’s old saying “the medium is the message” is a tired, but indispensable, axiom and one worth bringing into the discussion here. With cinema, it’s often used (by myself included) to argue the key importance of form in determinating the effect and meaning of a film, irrespective of any overtly espoused themes or messages. However, it’s rarely used to analyse how the ways in which a film is viewed can determine its meaning or effect. If one considers McLuhan’s phrase the way Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner do in their book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, it’s certainly applicable:

From this perspective, one is invited to see that the most important impressions made on a human nervous system come from the character and structure of the environment within which the nervous system functions; that the environment itself conveys the critical and dominant messages by controlling the perceptions and attitudes of those who participate in it. Dewey stressed that the role an individual is assigned in an environment—what he is permitted to do—is what the individual learns. In other words, the medium itself, i.e. the environment, is the message. ‘Message’ here means the perceptions you are allowed to build, the attitudes you are enticed to assume, the sensitivities you are encouraged to develop—almost all of the things you learn to see and feel and value. You learn them because your environment is organised in such a way that it permits or encourages or insists that you learn them.

It seems symptomatic of the tendency towards insularity in film culture that it’s the only art form not really grappling with these questions, and yet one more reason why experimental cinema is so important as a way of breaking open “restricted cinema” and reminding us of the “many other possibilities” Brenez talks about. In the past year or two, I’ve seen dance groups such as ETXEA, John Jasperse Company and IMDT, musical events such as DATA and the server project, wider cultural projects such as Mamuska and Seomra Spraoi, and fine art events too numerous to mention—all deeply concerned with the impact of “the role an individual is assigned in an environment” and exploring alternative paradigms of the audience/art relationship in order to address it.

Why shouldn’t this be happening in cinema?

December, 2007

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