In this essay, an earlier version of which was given as the Daphne Mayo Lecture at the University of Queensland on October 8, 2014, Thomas Elsaesser examines the increasingly strategic role played by art spaces in the preservation and promotion of a certain idea of “cinema”. He argues that museums and galleries have been staking their claim to be the guardians of cinema as cultural memory and the patrons of moving image installations, leading to new alliances between filmmakers, curators and major institutions that have favoured media-archaeological perspectives on “cinema after film”, thereby giving the various kinds of obsolescence their special status as a gesture of both recovery and resistance.
It will not have escaped anyone’s attention that the moving image – in the form of either video installations, monitors or black box film projections – has made a dramatic entry into the contemporary art scene. Suddenly screen and projection, motion and sound are everywhere, when previously hushed silence and the stillness of immersive contemplation reigned supreme in the temples of art we call museums. Some reasons are internal to the development of modern art practice, if one accepts that for many of today’s artists, a digital camera and a computer are as much primary tools of the trade as a paintbrush and canvas, or bronze and stone were a hundred years ago. Other reasons are more conjunctural, and in what follows, it is the latter I want to attend to. If approached from the side of the museum, the move towards incorporating film took place against the background of several parallel developments: the opening of Museums of Contemporary Art as an urban magnet in virtually every developed city or university town since the 1980s, and the general transformation of museums away from exclusivity and elitism, in the direction of spectacle and popular attraction, supported by major exhibitions, curated in order to travel to different places and tour the world, while generating the kind of attention (and revenue) previously reserved for high production-value Hollywood films.
If one adds to these blockbuster exhibitions the proliferation of Venice Biennales, Whitney bi-annuals, Kassel documenta’s and their replicas in Sao Paulo, Istanbul, Shanghai, one realises that museums have not only been on a convergence course with Hollywood studio-productions but also with the film festival circuit which – with more festivals than days in the year – now generates and funds, gate-keeps and polices a large part of the world’s non-Hollywood film production. As a consequence, the dramatic increase in scale of the world’s museum exhibition space, and the need to put on several new shows a year, has created an enormous demand for new work from fresh talent, bringing into the museum precisely those artists whose background and training makes them utilise contemporary materials and technologies, but also creating openings for the work of an earlier generation of filmmakers and video artists.
Among the artists-turned-filmmakers, perhaps the best known are Bill Viola, Tacita Dean, Pipilotti Rist, Fischli & Weiss, Johan Grimonprez, Matthew Barney, Omer Fast, Tracy Emin, Douglas Gordon, Sam Taylor-Wood, Isaac Julien and Steve McQueen. The cross-over filmmakers turned installation artists are also numerous, but a snapshot of the filmmakers who, for the first time, were invited to show their work or make original pieces for a major exhibition, may give an idea. I am thinking of Kassel’s documenta X, curated in 1997 by Catherine David, who had already been involved in another major show that brought together film, video and installation art in Paris: L’Entr’images, which she did in 1990 together with Raymond Bellour and Christine Assche. David invited to documenta X filmmakers from France, Germany, Belgium, Russia and Britain, among them Harun Farocki, Jon Jost, Johan Grimonprez, Chris Marker, Christoph Schlingensief, Alexander Sokurov, as well as Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, many of whom then went on to specialise in installations only, such as Harun Farocki (a filmmaker whom I have been following and writing about for 40 years). Documenta XI added Chantal Akerman, Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Kutlug Ataman, Fiona Tan, Shirin Neshat and Ulrike Ottinger to the list, some of whom made films that also yielded exhibitions (with photographs, installations, objects and re-enactments complementing the films), such as Ulrike Ottinger and Chantal Akerman. Then, there is the case of Agnès Varda, who thanks to the museum, reinvented herself and revitalized her career as both installation artist and filmmaker. Finally, there were filmmakers who turned against the museum in the museum: most spectacularly Jean-Luc Godard with his exhibition at the Centre Pompidou Voyage(s) en Utopie: À la recherché d’un théorème perdu in 2006, which caused something increasingly rare, namely a genuine scandal, since it cost almost a million euros to put on, and looked like Godard had tipped out his trash can of useless gear and botched model drawings and laid them out on the Pompidou floor.
Godard was protesting not least against the fact that art had become a debased, commercial medium, with exhibitions the theme parks for the world’s middle-classes. For the kind of art tourism that now sustains not only Paris and New York, Amsterdam and Venice, Berlin and Vienna, Seoul and Shanghai, but also Belfast, Bilbao and Brisbane, the moving image as both art object and source of information has become indispensable. For Godard, it was the cinema which was now called upon to cleanse and purify the museum, rather than the other way around, whereas Pompidou curators like Dominique Païni and Philippe-Alain Michaud argued that it was the museum’s task to take in hand the film industry, make it inoperative, or useless, before reviving it as the nation’s patrimony and cultural memory. To these lofty ambitions, Godard responded by turning the museum into a pigsty, as if to hold up a mirror to their arrogance of thinking the cinema needed rescuing because it had sunk so low into commercialism, without acknowledging that the museum itself had long ago made commercial considerations part of their own priorities.
For as museums lowered the threshold of entry, as it were, from exclusivity to popularity, with the museum shop becoming the beating heart of the collection, there is also the tendency of trying to “bring to life” its traditional objects and artifacts, be they paintings, drawings or sculptures. And this “life” is best conveyed through the moving image, with museums increasingly deploying film not only as art installations, but in their promotional videos camouflaged as guides to the collection. There, museums try to valorise (as well as monetise) their more classical assets by using the techniques of film and advertising: letting the camera “touch” a painting, isolating telling details on the canvas, and highlighting individual gestures, the richness of fabrics or sumptuous textures in a Renaissance portrait. In short, the videos, posters and postcards of a Manet retrospective or a Max Liebermann exhibition freely use such eminently cinematic techniques as montage, dissolves and close-ups to simulate the riot of colors or the drama of movement and action, as if a Rubens, a Tintoretto, or even the quiet Vermeer and the contemplative Rembrandt had always wanted to makes movies (or take ‘selfies’), and just didn’t have the tools yet.
But this popular bent and commercial clout also implies that the big brand museums – networked or franchised as they now are – along with the private galleries, with which they have complicated but symbiotic relationships, have the means to commission artists to make films and videos, eager to bring into the fold also that earlier generation of avant-garde filmmakers, educated through the co-op movement, adamantly anti-narrative and committed to the materiality of film. These filmmakers – Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, Ken Jacobs, Stan Brakhage – were more interested in exploring the ontologies of cinema than elbowing their way into the museum as an exhibition space, put off not least because of the often inadequate viewing conditions that prevailed well into the 1980s, but more fundamentally opposed to the museum because of the very real differences between the museum and the cinema as specific sites and discursive spaces, with their distinct histories, spatial arrangements and attention economies. For however snugly a “black box” can be fitted into the “white cube” with just a few mobile walls and plenty of dark fabric, the museum is no cinema and the cinema no museum: most obviously because of the different time economies and temporal vectors, which oblige even a dedicated museum visitor to “sample” a film rather than watch it in its entirety, and to constantly adjust his or her attention span, navigating between concentration and distraction. When going to the movies, by contrast, I know in advance that I am committing a two-hour-plus segment of my time and my life, and I readily submit to the relentless forward thrust and irreversibility of the moving image on the screen. The bodily differences are also crucial: upright and peripatetic in the art-space, supine and immobile in the cinema.
How, then, are these tensions or outright oppositions to be resolved or overcome? One way is to stage them quite explicitly (and sadistically, as Godard did), or to highlight the different parameters. At documenta 12, for instance, the chief curators Roger Bürgel and Ruth Noack decided not to show any films or film fragments within the different sites of the exhibition, but commissioned the director of the Vienna Cinematheque, Alex Horwath, to program appropriate films in a cinema, thus designating a film theatre as an exhibition space, while respecting its distinct autonomy. And Horwath did indeed show 96 films in separate sessions and séances, often standing at the entrance and frowning at people who left the screenings midway. In his curatorial statement, Horwath programmatically declared: “The format and space [of the film theatre] are based on the physical and technical characteristics of the medium. They allow film to be perceived on a specific level of intensity to which it owes its historical success.”1 In other words, what might seem either self-evident (films should be shown on the big screen) or the opinion of a conservative cinephile, trying to stem the tide, here becomes the assertion of the modernist art historical argument: asserting medium-specificity and the principle of absorption, in terms reminiscent of Michael Fried’s famous essay “Art and Objecthood”.2
The Dutch artist duo de Rijke and de Rooij are known for imposing similarly strict prescriptions for the screening (this time within the gallery or museum space) of their works, which are often ten-minute static shots, taking from a carefully chosen vantage point. In one of their best-known films, entitled “Untitled” (a gesture that in itself immediately refers us to an art-world practice) they show a Djakarta cemetery with a skyline of modern high-rises. As Erika Balsom comments: “Unlike most moving image artists, the duo insists that their films be exhibited in custom-designed spaces at particular screening times. The projector is enclosed in a soundproof booth and any potential distraction is minimised. Describing these rooms as “minimal sculptures,” de Rijke and de Rooij are interested in the vacancy resulting from the span of time between projections, when the room will be white and empty. […] With screening times posted outside of the room, the viewer is expected to sit, wait for the film to start, and stay until its end.”3
De Rijke and de Rooij, in other words, resolve the contradictions between cinema and museum by compounding and exacerbating them, putting the spectator into a state of cognitive dissonance and bodily double bind. A less severe but no less conceptual approach is taken by Anthony McCall, a British artist who began from within the London filmmakers’ Coop movement, along with figures such as Peter Gidal, Malcolm LeGrice and Steve Dwoskin, who called themselves “structuralist-materialists”. Strictly anti-illusionist, Gidal, for instance, would argue against both narrative and representation, claiming that in narrative films: “the real substance of what is being shown on film is overtaken by what it ‘stands for’ or ‘represents’. A film must rely only on the materiality of the image; it should document nothing.”4 Although resolutely thinking of himself as a filmmaker, hostile to the museum, Gidal nonetheless here voices a credo that is directly inspired by the art historian Clement Greenberg and his insistence that the subject matter of a work must be based on the distinct materiality of the medium being used.
McCall – coming from within the same context as Peter Gidal, nonetheless chose a different way of resolving the tensions between cinema’s sensuous appeal and the modernists’ more ascetic aesthetics. In his most famous work, Line Describing a Cone (1972), McCall projects a 30-minute film which does exactly what the title suggests: a white line is gradually traced until it depicts a complete circle on the screen. But what the audiences focuses on – since there clearly is no narrative progress, even though a distinct time-line is given through the completion of the circle as moment of closure – what we focus on is the projector beam that gradually forms this white cone of light into which we can step, and which is made more material, tactile and dense by having a fine jet of water or chalk dust sprayed into the auditorium (it used to be cigarette smoke, but those days of smoking in the cinema are long gone).
McCall here fully affirms his commitment to cinema – making the projector the iconic representative of some of the key characteristics of cinema as a distinct and specific medium: projection, luminosity, transparency – but purging it of what it shares with other media, such as narrative, characters and story, while nonetheless making the spectator the central figure. This spectator, however, is reminded that s/he is not only a pair of eyes, but also a body, eager to feel and to touch: a desire that Line Describing a Cone both gratifies and suspends, because there is nothing to touch, except to become aware of the desire itself. At the same time, McCall opens his work up to the museum space insofar as the cone clearly has sculptural qualities. To complicate matters further, Line Describing a Cone is an anti-sculpture sculpture: in the museum, a sculpture solicits your touch, but museum protocol bars you from touching it, whereas you are free to try and touch the cone, but what you actually touch is pure light: the irreducible essence of cinema, so that it is the museum that here teaches you what is essential and specific about cinema.
In the best tradition of minimalist art (which can pile layers upon layers of complex and contradictory association in the simplest and cleanest of objects), McCall elegantly and with supreme economy demonstrates what the museum, as both an institution and a space with a long tradition (and not only deep pockets) can do for the cinema, in its hour of need or crisis: it can recall it to its essentials, and thereby purge or cleanse it, by confronting it with what it is and what it is not. It is this ability to generate out of a confrontation based on legitimate differences a kind of antagonistic mutuality and cooperation, which makes the encounter between cinema and museum at its best so exhilarating and productive, and helps the cinema retain its autonomy while regaining some of the prestige and cultural value that both commercialism and easy access or over-abundance had stripped of it, and that French cinephilia of the 1950s and 60s Cahiers du cinéma school had worked so hard to build up for Hollywood and its directors.
What is special about McCall is that here is a filmmaker who valorises cinema by means of the museum, rather than a museum director or exhibition curator lording it over the cinema, and that he does so in a more ironic, self-effacing and playfully engaging way than, for instance, de Rijke and de Roij’s rather arbitrary and authoritarian imposition of rules on the spectator and the institution, or even Horwath’s curatorial statement that does not invite either dissent or debate.
McCall’s origins in the London Co-op Movement are a reminder that during the 1960s and 1970s there was a parallel development – mainly, though not exclusively located in New York – emerging from within the art-world, and also close to minimalism and conceptual art, where artists began to use portable video as their primary tools, and the monitor (rather than projection) as their material-immaterial support. These artists include Peter Campus, Gary Hill, Dan Graham and Yoko One, often inspired by Nam Jun Paik or the German artist Wolf Vostell. Insofar as their work focused on the monitor rather than on projection, the primary reference was to sculpture and occasionally painting, and perhaps touched the cinema only in some of the works of Gary Hill who “spatialises” the cinematic technique of montage and the close-up across a bank of monitors re-articulating the human body across its media-monitor fragmentation. Other artists, such as Joan Jonas, made video pieces, which – while being shown in museums – also entered other public spaces, in the context of performance art and happenings. This further complicates the genealogies of these two strands – video artists on the one hand, and materialist filmmakers on the other – whose trajectory began to converge with the introduction of high-resolution projection equipment in the 1990s, leading some video artists to claim pioneer and precursor status with respect to artists’ cinema and digital videos, while materialist filmmakers were faced with the dilemma of either insisting on the original materiality of their work, making it largely inaccessible for a contemporary public, or appearing to compromise on their theoretical positions and remake or convert their works into digital formats. Notable examples of the latter are Ken Jacobs and Michael Snow, who found quite an original way of resolving the conundrum, by re-issuing his most celebrated film, Wavelength, in a digital format, calling it WVLNT: Wavelength for those who don’t have the time (2003).
By mentioning so explicitly the time factor of the move from film theatre to museum space, Snow shows a very astute awareness of the main parameter around which artists try to creatively respond to the new realities of their survival as filmmakers, within the tendentially inhospitable or counterproductive environment of the museum. One strategy of claiming the cinema as one’s natural habitat, but bursting the boundaries of both movie-theatre and museum, is to produce work that massively extends duration. While filmmakers like Syberberg (Unser Hitler, 1977, 442 minutes), Béla Tarr (Sátántangó, 1994, 340 minutes) or Jean-Luc Godard (with his 260-minutes Histoire(s) du cinema, 1988-1998) test the limits of cinema, Douglas Gordon has made his 24-Hour Psycho specifically for the gallery space, in a gesture that simultaneously honours and repudiates both cinema and the museum. Such works openly and explicitly also challenge the exhibition visitors’ own time-economy (rarely more than a few minutes in front of an installation, and maybe a little longer inside the black box). The mis-match creates its own aesthetics: for instance, how do I, as viewer, when confronted with such overlong works, manage my anxiety of missing the key moment, and how do I balance this anxious anticipation against my sense of surfeit and saturation, of creeping boredom and mounting sense that I might be taken for a ride (albeit in a very static vehicle). As one art critic put it: “Why is it that whenever I come across Douglas Gordon’s 24-Hour Psycho, all I ever get is some dull, stop-go, slo-mo frames from the car purchase scene, or a man taking 10 minutes to walk jerkily around a desk? I’ve never yet, in the 9 years this work has been doing the international rounds, seen the shower scene. That’s my luck, or the lack of it.”5
Such extreme slowing down refocuses our attention in so many different ways, turning action into abstraction and photography into pointillism, veering towards the video image reminding us that it is from a late-night television broadcast that Gordon took his Psycho. We are almost in the realm of animation, the photographic mode becoming once more a graphic mode, and in its blurry effect already hinting at the pixilated break up point of the digital image.
These extended works, by confronting us viewers with our own temporality (and thus, our mortality) are no doubt also a filmmaker’s way of actively “resisting” the quick glance and the rapid appropriation by the casual museum visitor. Regret like missing the shower scene, or a bad conscience for slipping away after a minute or two from a three-hour video, have to be part of an artist’s calculation: his sole consolation or her sly revenge.
If almost no-one has ever seen 24-Hour Psycho in its entirety, because no museum is open for 24 hours (except the Guggenheim, once, putting on an all night round of accompanying lectures and performances), the gesture was already anticipated in the avant-garde film world with Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964) or Sleep (1963). However, the contemporary counterpart – which does obligate the museum or gallery to be open the full 24 hours – is Christian Marclay’s hugely successful The Clock – a 24-hour perfectly synchronised time-piece that also functions as a fanboy’s history of the cinema 6, combining the daring challenge to the museum’s office or store-like opening hours with the no less problematic, but opposite aesthetics of the found footage film, taking fragments from works conceived as autonomous, and approximating the on-line mash-up or super-cut, which Marclay subverts by the sheer superhuman skill, diligence and dedication he has invested in his work, daring the spectator to resist the very cinematic pull and suspense his rapidly edited snippets of well-known movies with famous stars exert on us.
Other artists have equally responded to the time-factor by relying on montage, on juxtaposition and the quick cut to capture the spectator and accommodate random attention and impatient selectivity. Or they develop new forms of the short film and the sampler, found-footage compilations or the video-essay, looped forms and other iterative or serial modes. In the film work of, for instance, Matthias Müller, Johan Grimonprez or Martin Arnold it is repetition and looping, as well as stretching and slowing down, that takes over from linear narrative or argumentative trajectories, as the structuring principles of moving image works destined for the museum.
All these works are appropriations, re-workings of Hollywood films, and thus can be viewed as direct engagements with the mainstream cinematic legacy, entering with canonical or popular works into a fraught and ambivalent dialogue. An early example, still made for the cinema), Martin Arnold’s Life Wastes Andy Hardy is typical for the 1980s: it still contains some of the traces of the old hostility of the filmic avant-garde towards Hollywood, and Arnold’s brute manipulation of filmic materiality (and the addition of extraneous, but carefully calibrated sound) exploits a fine line between fascination with Hollywood movie magic and disgust at its sentimentality, between acknowledging the precise craftsmanship and aggressing the medium itself, but also aggressing the viewer. By the late 1990s, such mash-ups of “found footage” are more interested in bringing out a different cinematic unconscious, so that Life Wastes Andy Hardy contrasts interestingly with Matthias Müller’s more cinephile Home Stories or Müller and Christian Girardet’s reworking of Hitchcock, in their Phoenix Tapes.
The changing attitude to Hollywood movies returns us to another aspect of the alliance of filmmaker and art-space: one of the subtler forces at work in bringing museum and moving image together is the programmatic reflexivity of the museum, the recursiveness of the modern art-work and the increasing self-reference of the cinema regarding its own history. To enter a museum or a gallery is still to cross a special kind of threshold, of seeing objects not only in their material specificity and physical presence, but also to understand this “thereness” diectically: as a special kind of statement, as both a question and a provocation – which has often been discussed under the heading of an art-work’s autonomy and self-sufficiency, or more paradoxically evoked in Walter Benjamin’s notion of the “aura”, which connotes a distance, however close you get – and usually, in a museum, we are not permitted to get too close, while the cinema, of course, in Benjamin’s thinking, was precisely the medium that satisfied the contemporary masses who wanted to bring things closer.7
Ownership and Found Footage
The liberal and often celebratory rather than critical use of Hollywood films, in order to recast, re-work, re-cycle and re-edit them, is a phenomenon so widespread now that its self-evidence should give us pause and make us ask some pertinent questions, especially in light of my earlier remarks about the museum’s self-appointed guardianship of the cinema’s patrimony which includes, as we saw, the attempt to save the cinema, if necessary, from itself. How does the museum deal practically, ethically and discursively with this discrepancy, and what might it be symptomatic of? And why is it that Hollywood cinema has become the basic reference point for so much artists’ cinema? The answer to the second question – Hollywood as common reference point for artists – brings me back to the point I started with: namely the ready availability of so much of movie history either on the web or as DVDs, at so little cost and effort 8
What is key, perhaps, is the insouciant and self-evident use of the Hollywood legacy, in the very face of copyright restrictions and punitive actions for infringements. It indicates a general sense of ownership of cinema: as part of culture, it belongs to everybody. Even Hitchcock has become common property, as in Matthias Müller/Christian Girardet or the dozens of artists who have reworked his films, stills or scenes into installations. In one sense, this is tribute, proof that the cinema – popular cinema – is indeed the art of the 20th century and our shared cultural memory to which we have a right as citizens of the world, and for which need neither the sanction of high culture nor the mediation of the museum. In another sense, however, what we are witnessing are acts of appropriation and post-production that make notions of ownership more problematic. Appropriation is a varied concept and it can carry very different meanings. For instance, it can be used as a more vivid term for reception and spectatorship in general, if we think of the active and interactive role we now tend to assign to the spectator – as viewer, as user, as player – in light of all the different screen activities that are involved in the consumption and apperception of moving images. In the more specific case of popular cinema, appropriation can also signify a gesture of love and an act of devotion. Thus, cinephilia – the particularly intense manner of living the film experience, by wanting to repeat it and to prolong it – should be seen as a form of appropriation. In which case, appropriation implicitly includes a claim to ownership, and this in turn can be either legitimate or illegitimate ownership. Ownership may be understood in legal terms, as copyright or intellectual property rights. But ownership extends to other modalities as well: ownership as the physical possession of the object “film” – something become possible only in relatively recent times, in the form of a DVD or an mp4 file – or it may be the right to do with the object as one pleases: interfere with it, re-edit its scenes and images, or alter it via commentary or sound-track. But ownership can also manifest itself, in the sense of trying to “own” a film’s meaning and interpretation and thus claim a particular kind of power over it: the critic’s secret dream. Several of these forms of ownership just named would seem to shift appropriation from the realm of reception to an act of production, and in the cases I have been discussing, when it comes to appropriation, reception can become productive (as in the video essay), and production can be a form of reception (as in found footage films) – with both coming together in the concept of post-production: a notion now almost as pervasive in the art-world as it is in Hollywood’s special effects and CGI studios.
In the art world, however, the sense of ownership, as already hinted at, is also based on the museums’ enhanced self-confidence as the patrons of filmmakers, on behalf of the public and the nation. Since the 1990s, big institutions like Tate Modern, the Pompidou Centre, or the Whitney in New York, began making big claims in this respect, and they usually had the power, the legitimacy (and the money) to enforce these claims: these museums have essentially “acquired” or “appropriated” not only the cinematic avant-garde for their permanent collections, but metaphorically they have also appropriated Hollywood. This new sense of ownership of the cinema that started in the mid-1990s was not unconnected with the already mentioned “death of cinema”, except that the more ostensible occasion was the cinema’s centenary, which launched a whole series of retrospective recovery missions. Celebrating hundred years of the Lumière Brothers’ invention in 1995 became the ideal occasion to praise the cinema, in order to bury it. The success of a number of ambitious, large scale exhibitions by major art institutions, such as Hall of Mirrors at MoCA in Los Angeles, Spellbound at the Hayward Gallery, London, Into the Light at the Whitney in New York, X-Screen at MUMOK in Vienna, Le Mouvement des Images at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, or The Cinema Effect: Illusion, Reality and the Moving Image at the Hirschhorn Gallery at the Smithsonian in Washington, helped to consolidate the notion that the proper place for the history of the cinema is now in the museum. 9
This is a bold admission of “appropriation”, which claims that there has always been a natural fit between the gallery space and the “cinema effect” – we just had not taken the trouble to spell it out. However, the discourse of the curators also hints at a host of contradictions, not thematised explicitly, but nonetheless present between the lines. One is reminded of a dictum by Boris Groys, to the effect that today art is not made by artists, but by curators, because in order to decide what is art, you first have to be in control of the space where it appears; second, of the institution that guarantees its authenticity, and third, of the discourses that legitimate it. This seems to be true of the cinematic archive, too, in the sense that the gesture of appropriation hints at a kind of takeover bid, where it is not yet clear whether it is a hostile or friendly one, and whether it is the museum or the movies that benefit most from their mutual re-alignment and embrace.
It is a lesson not lost on the artists themselves, and their sense of ownership is keen enough to contest some of the acts of the appropriation on the part of the museums, not least by turning themselves into curators, including curators of the cinematic archive: think of the many found footage installations in the oeuvre of Douglas Gordon or Gustav Deutsch. Deutsch’s “Film Is” makes poetic compilations out of early silent films, industrial films, medical films, pornography, etc. Not unlike Farocki’s installations that focus on “operational images”, found footage films expand the canon to include all those areas where the moving image has been used to record and document processes and actions in the fields of medicine and the military, scientific experiment, surveillance as well as the monitoring of natural phenomena and of industrial machinery. Such footage has gathered dust in film archives for decades: artists are now welcome, because they valorise holdings hitherto considered too ephemeral, too trite, too specialised or too much lacking aesthetic interest, to merit exhibition and exposure. Artists’ sense of ownership can also make them forget or ignore prior authorship or provenance. At times they strip context or obfuscate the origins of the materials in question, so as to present their re-working and re-staging as a surreal collage of fresh fragment or as the walk-in installation of an uncannily familiar space. The black box then also becomes a black box in the technical sense, as a space within which anything is possible, where input and output are not predetermined.
None of this, however, explains one feature of artists’ cinema and the reflexive appropriation of the cinema’s history with which I want to end: the many works that pay tribute to the cinema’s past, and do so not by re-working favourite films of fond movie-going memories, but by celebrating the cinema’s technological demise. What is it with exhibiting the machinery of cinema, its apparatus, often without inserting a film, concentrating on the projected image itself or showing the unwound reel of film in a sad heap of celluloid strips, or endlessly rattling through the projector gate, frantic in its apparent purposelessness, vulnerable in its isolation, or like a child’s wind-up toy, flailing the air with its whirring sound of the gears and spools? Examples abound: besides Tacita Dean and Rosa Barba, there is, for instance, Gibson + Recoder and Rodney Graham. Are these installations merely pale echoes of McCall’s Line Describing a Cone, or is there also something else at stake? The term I briefly introduced and have alluded to throughout seems to me to hold the key: obsolescence. This is a more complex notion than it might at first appear.
The term “obsolescence” has in recent years appeared in the vocabulary of both media historians and the art world, as a quick look at Google entries will show. In the process, it has significantly changed its meaning, by enlarging its semantic and evaluative range. From being a descriptive term within the technicist-economic discourse of “progress through creative destruction”, it became a critical term in Marxist discourse, when designers and marketing people advanced the principle of “built-in” obsolescence, while critics of consumerism in the 1950s, such as Vance Packard, attacked such “planned” obsolescence as both wasteful and immoral. But now the meaning of obsolescence has once more shifted: it has entered the realm of the positive, signifying something like heroic resistance to relentless acceleration, and in the process, has become the badge of honour of the no-longer-useful (which by itself associates the obsolete with the “disinterestedness” of the aesthetic impulse). Obsolescence can even be the rallying point for sustainability and recycling, while also making an eloquent plea for an object-oriented philosophy and a new materialism of singularity and self-sufficiency of being.
In many ways obsolescence seems the overarching concept, under whose broad etymological expanse and varied figurations the appropriation of the cinema as shared heritage, but also its valorisation as the artists’ privileged domain proceeds most effectively, forming a slender bridge between an institutional trafficking with nostalgia and retro-fashion, and the artists tentatively or aggressively reflexive re-examination of the cinema. What is crucial, it seems to me, is that obsolescence – now considered as a distinct poetics, and for my purposes here, one of the faces of cinephilia in the age of over-abundance – can herald a different relation between present, past and future, not just by acts of creative anachronism, but also by using technological obsolescence like an anchor, cast into the churning sea of an uncertain future. In this, the artists enact something of deeper significance, also for the rest of us. The present moment, cognisant of its stasis and paralysis, can look at the past’s obsolescence as if into a mirror of its own fate, and not only take comfort from it, but by actively preserving these obsolete objects and by treasuring their uselessness, we protect, love and redeem ourselves, in a proxy gesture of half-acknowledged narcissism.
Obsolescence, understood as the surviving witness of past newness while renouncing once-upon-a-time utility, can therefore also harbour utopian aspirations, and even become the vehicle for preserving lost promises and unfulfilled potential. This positive view of the poetics of obsolescence we can trace back to Walter Benjamin and his reflections on the early years of photography (in his “Short History of Photography”) and his musings on the surrealist object as both proud and vulnerable in its uselessness. 10 Freed from utility and market value, both the hand-crafted implement and the industrially made commodity can reveal unexpected beauty and deploy a potent charm: out of the transition from use-value to display value, and from cult object to the disenchantment of the world, Benjamin derived not only an exalted view of the collector, but also a whole theory of the origins of art. And nowadays it seems that when reclaiming the discarded, preserving the ephemeral and redeeming the newly useless, we are not that far from paying our tribute to sustainability and the ethics of recycling, even if only in the form of the symbolic act that is the work of art, or the scholarly discourse of the media-archaeologist.
At the heart of many of these processes and phenomena is our own deeply paradoxical cultural moment, where to be retro is to be novel, where “going vintage” is “avant-garde”. But it also has a political dimension, since the dialectics of (technological) innovation and (capitalist) obsolescence has in some sense become the fate of the contemporary art world, and its wider implications suggest that the poetics of obsolescence and the idea of progress (or what is left of it) have become the recto and verso of each other: through obsolescence we negatively conjure up the ghost of progress past. One of the strategic uses of obsolescence as a critical concept can be found in the fact that, being a term that inevitably associates both capitalism and technology, it is of special interest in the context of both the art world and audio-visual media, both old and new, because it implicitly acknowledges that today there is no art outside capitalism and technology.
For if capitalism is still the most revolutionary, which is to say, the most disruptive force in the contemporary world, it is at the same time, the untranscendable horizon of our thinking and being. This not only means that there is no outside to the inside, which renders any critical stance that much more difficult to protect from being co-opted, but it gives obsolescence a new kind of self-contradictory dignity: it is on the inside, but it makes its stand against the inside, and thus speaks a paradoxical truth of which it is itself the embodiment.
Obsolescence is “history at a standstill”, to vary Benjamin’s famous aphorism about the allegorical image. But by arresting history, suspending time and reversing its flow, obsolescence can be a moment of reassessment as well as of renewal, which is why I want to insist that obsolescence implies a special relation of past to present that no longer follows the direct linearity of cause and effect, but takes the form of a loop, where the present rediscovers a certain past, to which it then attributes the power to shape aspects of the future that are now our present. Remaining within Benjamin’s frame of reference, we can cite his messianic conception of Jetztzeit or Now-time, and say that “the past is always formed in and by the present. It comes into discourse analeptically in relation to a present, and since it is read from the standpoint of the present, it is proleptic as well, in that it forms ‘the time of the now’.”11 This analeptic-proleptic relationship I call the “loop of belatedness”, which is to say, we retroactively discover the past to have been prescient and prophetic, as seen from the point of view of some special problem or urgent concern in the here and now. Much of the work of artists and academics, of curators and museum directors is, for good or ill, today caught in this loop of belatedness, where we retroactively assign or attribute uncanny agency to a moment or a figure from the past that suddenly speaks to us in a special way. In fact, if I am right to argue that especially the West is caught in this loop of belatedness, of which obsolescence has become the stubborn emblem (reflected also in the notion of “cinema after film is cinema before film”, which underpins my title), then it is no wonder that contingency is fast becoming our new causality, since it promises that flicker of hope, that moment of interruption, that possibility of the event, capable of breaking open a future that already feels foreclosed.
Perhaps the loop of belatedness, whose instantiation as well as interruption I associate with such a poetics of obsolescence, is neither as tautological nor as retrograde as it might appear, but actually describes the human condition. For at the borders of repetition and the replay lies also our mortality, and the irreversibility of the arrow of time applies to all living things. A digital video called Still Life by Sam Taylor Wood makes the point quite poignantly, as the only object unaffected by mortality in this tableau is the plastic ball point pen.
This pen, which can also stand for “cinema” (in the digital age), as it successfully suspends this irreversibility, would seem to mock us with the promise of some sort of immortality, just as the museum, when embracing the cinematic heritage, beckons with the assurance of its timelessness. By contrast, “cinema” as lived experience in the dark space, the cave, the camera obscura, preserves all the terrors of mortality, and becomes the very epitome of our tentative existence as individual subjects and as a species. This is perhaps why Jacques Aumont wants to call “cinema” only that which insists on the irreversibility of the projected image. Appearing retrograde and excessively conservative in rejecting the DVD, he nonetheless gives one possible answer not to the classic question “what is cinema”, or the more contemporary “where is cinema”, but also to the even more puzzling one: “what is cinema good for”?12 Aumont makes cinema the memento mori art of the electric and the electronic age, indirectly reminding us that “cinema”, in the words attributed to Jean Cocteau, “records death at work”, which becomes a paradoxical consolation at a time when cinema is more like “death and life, suspended in digital animation”. But Aumont’s seemingly harsh verdict also suggests that the gap which the art work can open up in the loop of belatedness, precisely by repeating it, is an important one: it helps us keep the faith in the possibility of a future, even if we cannot be sure whether the digital is or is not the great leveler that voids our past as it suspends our present in an eternal now. A poetics of obsolescence, which invests in the past in order to prepare for possible futures would be the perfect, because suitably precarious, balancing act between both these possibilities.
- Alexander Horwath, “Second Lives – The documenta 12 Film Programme”, www.documenta12.de/index.php?id=787&L=1 ↩
- See Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood”, Artforum 5 (1967): 12-23. ↩
- Erika Balsom, Exhibiting Cinema in Contemporary Art (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2013), p. 80. ↩
- Peter Gidal, Blow Job (London: Afterall Books, 2008), p. 10. ↩
- Adrian Searle, Monsters Inc, The Guardian, November 5, 2002, www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2002/nov/05/art.artsfeatures ↩
- Marclay can be (and has been) critiqued for offering a skewed history of the cinema, overwhelmingly American and from the 1950s-1980s. ↩
- See, of course, Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), pp. 217-252. ↩
- It highlights Marclay’s The Clock as the exception that proves the rule, because the effort and expense that went into its making, together with the restrictions that it can only be shown in galleries or museums, creates a new kind of scarcity and thus maintains the artistic value usually accorded to the unique original. ↩
- A particularly notable example of this is the promotional video that the Hirschhorn Gallery put online, whose voiceover intoned: “In the age of digital convergence, film is increasingly becoming a touchstone for new media and video art – no longer as antipode to these media (themselves divergent), but as constructed archetype for all moving images. Whereas earlier surveys have posited film as metaphor or have emphasized sampling and mimicry, the Hirshhorn’s two-part endeavor focuses on cinema’s cognitive effects. The first instalment explores the ways time-based media transport us to dreamlike states; the second, their ability to construct new realities. Forty works made between 1963 and 2006 will be contributed by nearly as many artists. The roster suggests we can expect everything from the sumptuous qualities of celluloid (Tacita Dean) to interpellation into the cinematic apparatus (Anthony McCall) to surreal projected video (Paul Chan).” ↩
- See Walter Benjamin, “A Short History of Photography”, trans. Stanley Mitchell, Screen 13:1 (1972): 5-26. ↩
- Jeremy Tambling, Becoming Posthumous (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 117 ↩
- See Jacques Aumont, Que reste-t-il du cinéma ? (Paris: Vrin, 2012), and Raymond Bellour, La querelle des dispositifs: Cinéma – installations – expositions (Paris: P.O.L., 2012), a chapter of which is also included in this dossier. ↩