I recently completed an project proposal for an imaginary exhibition. In designing the program, I was excited to see some of my experiences and research over this past summer coalesce into what might be the start of my thesis research. I’ve copied an excerpt from the proposal below, which starts to get into some of my theories on presenting media art in the gallery context.
WorLd: Project Context
My current research involves the role of space in exhibitions that contain moving image artworks. Since the inception of video art, galleries have struggled with presenting moving image works, which capture the viewer’s attention in a very different way than traditional visual art. After the invention of photography, the contemporary art museum shifted its understanding of art as representational towards understanding it as being more in line with philosophy. As such, gallery spaces have been designed to encourage viewers to approach art with an academic, thoughtful perspective, as opposed to an immersive, ecstatic one. However, moving image art is inherently immersive, and therefore is not well suited to this type of viewing approach.
Moving images instinctively draw our eye – a television screen in a bar or an advertisement on the side of the road instantly attracts a glance. Kate Mondloch sums it up best when she refers to the entrapment of the gaze and disciplining of the body as “aggressive” (Mondloch 29). The trouble in the gallery is how to hold that attention. She explains the gallery is designed to allow viewers to travel at their own pace, and distance themselves from the work, so that a viewer can contemplate and look at once. It is a freedom of temporality and mobility that is in direct opposition with the way that the cinema engages viewers, and therefore makes it difficult to engage viewers for the length of time required in cinema.
While there is definite value in the gallery approach to visuality, less discussed is the idea that there might be equal value in the way that the cinema captures attention. Films are often used as documentation or as support material, or presented in ways that take away their immersive power. This is a great disservice, because films, more than any other medium, have the power to pull us into experience, to treat us like characters in a living dream and place us inside the action. Karyn Sandlos writes about the emotional thrill of embodied viewing, saying “it glances across the imagination without committing itself to scrutiny. This, for me, is the temporal difference between learning about and learning from short film and video program. As audience, we cannot learn these histories off by heart; instead, we become implicated with the works in the time of hints, subtle gestures, and flirtatious innuendo.” (Sandlos 30). Once you are inside of a cinematic work, it is easy to place yourself into the story, either as a fly on the wall in a narrative feature film, or as the main character within installation works like Bruce Nauman’s “Video Surveillance Piece: Public Room, Private Room” (1970) or Peter Campus’ “Interface” (1972) where the viewer is literally projected into the work. By experiencing yourself as part of the work, it becomes more like a performance or an event, and ideally will create a connection that shocks you into thinking about it long after you have left it behind.
Sandlos also draws on Freudian ideas that learning is partially unconscious; we never fully learn from an experience while we are in the moment, and therefore we must continually search for new contexts in which to revisit old experiences. Sandlos points out that in short film exhibition the program delays understanding. Since the program is temporal and moves from one film to the next with little pause for thinking, the viewer must simply experience and save the contemplation for afterwards, at which point they will consider the program as a whole, not just as single works. This back and forth between experience and contemplation is where cinema is able to meet the gallery. It is an in-between space that is also referred to by Laura Marks in her discussion of the eroticism created by the fluctuation of the haptic (or tactile) and the optical gaze (thoughtful). The idea of this action as erotic is interesting because it metaphorically links the feeling of connectedness with art and a romantic relationship between two people. The creation of any relationship requires a certain amount of vulnerability, intimacy and trust. I believe that it is possible to establish an environment that is more conducive to intimacy than the stark, white box gallery, and that by doing so, it will engage art audiences in a dramatic, memorable fashion. The first step is to compile a collection of works that can build relationships with one another, and then to make the audience feel invited into the space to share that relationship.
The exhibition WorLd is designed to disrupt the traditional gallery dynamic, with the inclusion of mediums like poetry, feature film, and audio, along with powerful immersive installations, painting and sculptures. The thematic relationship between the works is straightforward, but in many ways it also acts as a metaphor for my research in defining a curatorial methodology for cinematic works in the gallery. It is an attempt to shape a concept that there is little-to-no language for at this point. It is a balance between conscious choices and the unconscious connections that develop between the works. It is an act of play and exploration that lies somewhere between the known and unknown.
Mondloch, Kate. Screens: Viewing Media Installation Art. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. Print.
Sandlos, Karyn. “Curating and Pedagogy in the Strange Time of Short Film and Video Exhibition.” The Moving Image 4.1 (2004) Project Muse. Web. 22 Aug. 2012.