Exhibiting CinemaFeature image: Film (Tacita Dean)

Variously designated as “gallery film”, “video art”, and “projected image”, the field of the moving image installation has been for years a sort of terra incognita that few scholars within both the disciplines of art history and film studies have dared to explore. Although the interest of artists in mining the overlaps between cinema and other visual arts is hardly a new phenomenon, harking back to the 1960s if not even earlier – one could think, for example, of the film experiments of Andy Warhol or the influence of B-movies on Robert Smithson – only recently have film and art history departments begun to offer courses on this art form. Erika Balsom’s Exhibiting Cinema in Contemporary Art represents a significant attempt from the field of film studies to remedy the neglect of this important strand in visual culture. (1) The author sets herself no easy task: given the proteiform nature and ubiquitous presence of moving image works today, her object of study is virtually infinite. Video or film installations appear in every biennial and museum of contemporary art in the world. What is more, both formally and thematically, the trend encompasses an extremely diverse range of practices: immersive large-scale video walls, intimate 16 mm films, multiple channel projections, single screen projections, animation, live action films, digitally manipulated works, archival films, documentary and fiction features or, more often than not, works that straddle the boundaries between the two genres. Also varied are the ways in which artists’ films and videos are installed and exhibited. Some of them are shown in dark rooms while others are displayed in the gallery’s “white box”. Some hide the projector while others lay it bare, turning the technical apparatus into a sculptural object. Such chaotic heterogeneity thwarts attempts to provide an exhaustive and ordered taxonomy of this significant strand in contemporary art.

Given its challenging and unstable object of study, Exhibiting Cinema is a book of great merit and relevance. It examines the installations of some of the most significant artist-filmmakers in today’s international art world, providing closed and theoretically sophisticated analysis of works by, say, Matthew Buckingham, Stan Douglas, Douglas Gordon, Kutluğ Ataman, Omer Fast, Tacita Dean and Pipilotti Rist. But Balsom’s book also deserves praise for its attempt to overcome long-standing and entrenched divisions between film studies and art history. The delay of both disciplines in addressing the field of the moving image in the gallery has certainly to do with their different methodologies and theoretical biases. Art historians tend to treat cinema as a medium of illusion and mystification and as a dangerous threat to the autonomy and independence of art. Film studies scholars, on the other hand, see the museum as a too rarefied and lofty space, which can not offer useful insights on a modern and popular mass medium such as the cinema. Against preconceived ideas about disciplinary limits, Balsom proposes that we take contemporary installations seriously, as they might “offer numerous answers to the question of what cinema might be and, in so doing, may be understood as engaging in film theory through practice.” (p. 13) According to the author, the moving image in the gallery requires a reconceptualization of the ontology of cinema. That is to say, the new art form demands that the viewer relinquish purist notions of the medium and open themself up to cinema’s inherent dynamism and plurality. “It is clear,” Balsom remarks, “that cinema no longer means just one thing – though, of course, it never did.” (pp. 16-17). Having said that, for Balsom the “museification” of the seventh art should not be seen as the symptom of its imminent death – a lament voiced by many critics in the last decade of the past century and that has now become a worn-out cliché. In spite of the technological change brought about by digitalisation, cinema continues to survive and capture transnational audiences. One of the greatest merits of Balsom’s book is to refuse such melancholic narratives and apocalyptic predictions. “Rather than being a time to mourn the death of yet another cinema,” she declares, “the contemporary moment is characterised by a renewed vitality and reinvention of the cinema that has opened new paths that will continue to be explored in the years to come.” (p. 25)

Exhibiting Cinema differs from current literature on the topic in the field of film studies for its engagement with contemporary art theory. While this is evidence of Balsom’s laudable effort at breaking disciplinary boundaries, her ambivalent endorsement of certain schools of thought is at odds with the radical and innovative proposition on which the book is based. Throughout her study the author often cites the writings of October’s editors Rosalind Krauss and Hal Foster. Over the past twenty years, October has championed artists that appropriate obsolescent filmic and photographic technologies and has celebrated the superiority of analogue over digital media. (2) One of the founders of the journal, Krauss is well-known for her vehement battle against contemporary art practices that refuse the reflexive investigation of the specific properties of the medium. (3) The art historian’s call for a return to the modernist concept of “medium specificity” has recently been embraced by prominent film theorists such as Mary Ann Doane, who has deployed Krauss’s theory in her discussion of cinema’s indexicality. (4) A student of Doane, at times Balsom seems to passively accept the purist positions of Krauss and Doane and seems to be unable to fully break away from the high modernist approaches of her predecessors, despite her initial claims about the inherent transitional quality and hybridity of the medium of film.

24 Hour Psycho (Douglas Gordon)

24 Hour Psycho (Douglas Gordon)

Balsom’s problematic reliance on Krauss is particularly evident in chapter one of the book, entitled “Architecture of Exhibition”. This compelling chapter looks at the history of the 1990s – a seminal decade for the art form as it witnessed an unprecedented boom in moving image installations in Western museums and biennials. Exhibitions such as Passages de l’image, curated by Raymond Bellour, Catherine David and Christine van Assche for the Centre George Pompidou in Paris, are brilliantly reconstructed and discussed by Balsom, who rightly points at the paradoxical dynamics animating the sudden impulse to display cinema in the gallery. On the one hand, projects like Passages provided critics with a platform from which to mourn the passing of cinema. On the other hand, art installations mining the history of film (e.g. Douglas Gordon’s  24 Psycho and Through a Looking Glass) served curators’ attempt to “rejuvenate” the museum, as the mass appeal of moving images was harnessed to attract greater and younger audiences. Unfortunately in several passages of the chapter the author seems to rehearse Krauss’s cynical despair. For Krauss the proliferation of installation art in the museum epitomises the violent cultural logic of late capitalism and signals the triumph of simulacral experience over reflexivity. Likewise, Balsom describes the contemporary museum as “a pulsing site of visceral intensity competing for tourist dollars.” (p.60) “In their rush to adopt new ways to commemorate cinema as old,” she argues, “museums and galleries have often neglected to consider that their actions may be inflicting more harm than good.” (p. 41) And yet Balsom avoids the Adornian pessimism of Krauss’s position and argues that the contemporary museum, although deeply commercialized, allows for the possibility of resistance against the wholesale flattening of culture.  As she explains towards the end of chapter one:

One can, for example, identify moving image work that embraces the antispectacular, cultivating an interest in the obsolete and discarded forms that constitute the dialectical other of capitalism’s focus on the incessant production of novelty. Artists such as Matthew Buckingham, Tacita Dean, and Jeroen de Rijke/Willem de Rooj […] fall under such a heading. (p. 63)

Throughout the book Balsom seems to reduce large scale projection, high production values, and quick-paced editing to lack of criticality and thus privileges those practices lingering on the beauty and intimacy of 16mm cinema (e.g. the work of Tacita Dean and Matthew Buckingham). But does her reading unduly reify cinematic techniques, projecting onto them a symbolic meaning which they do not actually have? Does she provide a too reductive and even simplistic representation of the world of contemporary art? One could mention exhibitions such as Documenta XI (2002) as evidence of the emancipatory possibilities of the art museum. The event included a wide range of documentary films that exposed zones of political and economic inequalities that are normally unrepresented by mainstream media.

Film (Tacita Dean) 

Film (Tacita Dean)

In other chapters cinema’s main “enemy” appears to be less the proclivity of the art world for spectacle than the advent of digitalisation – once again conflated with the demonic force of Hollywood. It is the rise of media convergence or, to use the author’s words, “the operation by which media lose their medium-specific qualities by being remediated or transcoded to data based in binary code” (pp. 13-14) that threatens cinema’s future. As Balsom explains:

When one speaks about the transformations cinema is undergoing in the early years of its second century, it is most often in the context of a digital threat, a becoming calculable of the film image that makes way for the CGI monsters of summer blockbusters and movies based on video games. Surely, this is one mutation that is occurring. But one might also look to the domain of moving image art to find alternate responses to the proliferation of digital media and the changes wrought to distribution and exhibition structures. Hollywood is not alone in its attempt to redefine the cinema. (p. 15)

However, ironically, one of the causes for the rediscovery of the field of the moving image installation has been the development of the Internet. In fact, the network has enabled greater accessibility to the geographically dispersed and precarious archive of experimental cinema and video (see, for instance, online databases of artists’ films such as Ubuweb). Accused of being the main culprit for the death of “the seventh art”, new media have paradoxically contributed to its after-life.

In her conclusion Balsom returns to the broad question of how the integration of film into the gallery and the museum has changed our conception of cinema. This is certainly a relevant and legitimate philosophical issue. However, while I warmly welcome Balsom’s sophisticated approach and dynamic prose, I fear that her anxiety about the “ontology” of the medium could become a distraction from a less speculative but no less relevant and pressing question: namely, what is the political message and the content of the moving image installations that circulate in the gallery today? We may wonder whether ontological questions about the essence and future of cinema matter as much to contemporary artists as they do to film scholars. Balsom touches on this issue in the last two chapters of the book whereby she dedicates her attention to films by Omer Fast, Candiz Breitz and Amar Kanwar. As Balsom says, “the interrogation they stage into the medium-specific qualities of film does not seal off the work into a modernist spiral of recursivity, but rather fastens onto the radical lack of autonomy found in the film image” and “its privileged link with time and history” (p. 106). In other words, the most significant artists today are less interested in exploring the formal properties of the medium than in film as a probe into politically controversial events and memories. More film history should be written with the kind of imagination, clarity and verve displayed by Balsom’s book. Exhibiting Cinema is a thought-provoking work, which will long remain a key reference for students and specialists in the history of the moving image installation.

Erika Balsom, Exhibiting Cinema In Contemporary Art (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2013).

Endnotes

  1. Exhibiting Cinema in Contemporary Art is the latest addition to a small but growing body of scholarship on the moving image installation. See Tamara Trodd, Screen/Space (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011); Steven Jacobs, Framing Pictures: Film and the Visual Arts (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011); and Pavle Levi, Cinema by Other Means (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
  2. See October’s special issue on obsolescence edited by George Baker, “Artist Questionnaire: 21 Responses,” October 100 (Spring 2002), pp. 6–98.
  3. See Rosalind Krauss, ‘“…And then turn away?” An essay on James Coleman’, October 81 (Summer 1997), pp. 5–33; ‘Reinventing the medium’, in Angelus Novus: Perspectives on Walter Benjamin, a special issue of Critical Inquiry 25: 2 (Winter 1999), pp. 289–305; ‘A Voyage on the North Sea’: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999); Under the Blue Cup (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2011).
  4. See Mary Ann Doane, “The Indexical and the Concept of Medium Specificity,” differences: a journal of feminist and cultural studies 18: 1 (2007), pp. 128-152.

About The Author

Paolo Magagnoli is a Lecturer in Art History in the School of Communication Arts at the University of Queensland. He is the author of Documents of Utopia: The Politics of Experimental Documentary (New York: Wallflower Press, 2015).

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