Cinematic film, expanded cinema and site-specific experience

Reading the book Between the Black-Box and the White Cube: Expanded Cinema and Postwar Art by Uroskie (2014) as a preparatory exploration of the cinematic film and crossovers with post-modernist art.

Cinematic experience and the conception of the expanded cinema in the 1960s was an influential cultural product on post-modernist art. Cinema films screened in movie theaters developed from a spectacle of seeing a projection towards multiscreen spectacles. The viewer became fully immersed in the event of seeing in a contained environment that let one to forget of seeing moving images projected with light through the materiallity of film. Alongside this cinematic narrative the develoment of what one could call the spectatorial discipline. A discipline that was embedded in the architecture of the movie theater and the guiding principles of directors.

An example is Alfred Hitchcock who made rigid adminssion guidelines, that all spectators should arrive on time, no moving in and out allowed during screening time, and 1/2 min blackness after finishing (1960). According to Uroskie, it was quite normal till the 1950s for the specators to come and go, seeing multiple short features, and considering cinema as mere entertainment on the go (p.78). Hitchcocks rigidity was apparently quite a drastic intervention in spectators habit. What reminds me, that today it seems rather a way backwards, with video art in museums and gallery embracing that cinematic experience of the 1950s.

One would therefore not be astonished that artists challenged that kind of dislocation and disembodied aesthetic experience in movie theaters with provoking films. Andy Warhol’s long lasting still films Sleep and Empire are in that tradition. The screening time of more than five hours was less of the problem (as other films at that time were running as long e.g. Abel Granc’s Napoleon), it was Warhol’s rejection of breaks, the elimination of audio and a time-passing movement of just one still image, a contradiction.  The reaction of the audience on this provocation came immediatelely and with violent and insulting voices as the theater manager Mike Getz described it (Oroskie, 2014:83). It might be worth noting that Warhol did cheat in Sleep, as the impression of a long duration of a sleeping man in real time is based on shorter loop sequences. With that the question of how we perceive real time and what is reel time is addresses (Heartney, 2013:144)

It was less of a conceptual idea but rather of a departure from immersive illusionary moving images towards a new and modern aesthetics.  As Warhol describes the disruptive experience of his films (p.87)

“to help the audiences get more acquainted with themselves” – Andy Warhol

as a re-familiarization of cinema’s history and the spectacle of projection.

The author noted that one could see this movement and kind of new site-specific orientation in expanded cinema as a critique of Benjamin’s notion of the loss of aura and authenticity in the ‘age of mechanical production’. The personal encounter of a work of art, is embedded in the location of viewing. John Cage expressed is that the exhibitionary context was as important as anything internal to its material form. A conception embraced by Claes Oldenburg in his disturbing work Moveyhouse (1975) with the spectator instructed to stand in the aisle with some actors seated making all sorts of interventions.  An interesting aspect worth note-taking is the rejection of Cage to stand in the aisle in Olderburg’s ‘performance theater’ by saying ‘I refuse to be told what to do’ (Uroskie, 2014:76) and comparing it with a ‘police situation’ which points to the institutional control of site aesthetic rules as a set of collective behavioral and spectatorial protocols.

Another approach in expanded cinema, to subvert the dislocating and immersive experience of Hollywood cinema films, and to invite for a new aesthetic experience, was Nam June Paik who placed the spectator into an unsettling and disturbing consciousness with his short film from 1964:  Zen for Film (Fluxfilm #1)

A ‘zero degree phenomenology of cinematic experience’ as Uroskie described Paik’s use of film leader (the first part of the film reel that is used to insert it into the projector)

 

John Cage compared Paik’s film with his own conception of expanded music and put the following three work into a conceptual trilogy (Uroskie, 2014:55):

What all three have in common is a gestural practice of the artist and raising a reflexive consciousness of the process of seeing or listening itself. In a kind of reversal of figure/ground notion, the awareness is re-focused on materiality and by that on the conditions of aesthetic experience. The idea of the ‘blank canvas’ (Rauschenberg’s white surface) extended into other sensible fields of film (Paik’s blank screen of light) and music (Cage’s blank noise of silence). All three have also in common a heightened attention to small disturbances, to ‘dust on the ground’ (textural difference on white surface, dust particles on film material, the selective gestures and surrounding noises beyond the ‘silent’ music piece).

In this sense, expanded cinema is challenging traditional aesthetic experience through a re-conceptualization embracing site-specific aspects of architecture, mechanics of moving image exhibition, institutional and discursive context. What was at stake was the spectator’s viewpoint, seated in a fix structure and relationship between the projector and the screen, that has some similarities to the Renaissance linear perspective paradigm. The question raised was

“how the idea of cinema might function to subvert established codes of exhibition and spectatorship withing the established arts … thus precipitating a more fundamental transformation in the spaces and possibilities of “post-cinematic” art as such” – Uroskie, 2014

 

Conclusion:

Cinematic film developed over time from a spectacle or projection towards an immersive narrative spectacle within movie theaters based on structural viewing conditions. Artist since the 1950s were seeking to subvert that institutional narrative through new fields of aesthetic experience.


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