The Situated Cinema Project; in camera

This is an essay from my current curatorial initiative: The Situated Cinema Project; in camera. It is developed through Pleasure Dome and gave me the chance to work with the wonderful Solomon Nagler and Alexandre Larose. I first worked with each of these artists through the $100 Film Festival years ago, and they make a fantastic team. Sol has been working on these Situated Cinemas for several years now, and I was really thrilled by the project, since it ties so closely into my own interests around cinema, spectatorial experience and architectural environments for art. I’ll be doing a bit more writing about it over the next few weeks (Sol and I are also working on a book project after the installation itself is finished!), but in the meantime, here is an essay that I wrote to accompany the cinema installation here in Toronto.

The project runs from September 10-20 and lands in three venues:

September 10-13: The Toronto International Film Festival’s Festival Street – Intersection of King Street West & Peter St. (TIFF Festival Street hours of operation)

September 14-16: 8-11 Gallery – 233 Spadina Ave (10am-10pm)

September 17-20: Artscape Youngplace – 180 Shaw St. (10am-10pm)

Artist talk: Sat Sept 12 @ 7:30pm – Artscape Youngplace
Reception: Thurs Sept 17 @ 6-10pm – Artscape Youngplace

For more information: http://www.pdome.org

Situated Cinema Project

Sidewalk Apparitions: The Situated Cinema Project; in camera

by Melanie Wilmink

An uncanny architecture on the sidewalk invites closer inspection. This new obstacle in the familiar cityscape is the Situated Cinema Project; in camera, a temporary and portable micro-cinema commissioned by Toronto-based media arts exhibition group Pleasure Dome in celebration of their 25th anniversary. Designed by Halifax filmmaker Solomon Nagler with architects Thomas Evans and Jonathan Mandeville, the structure features an experimental 16mm film loop called “pilgrimage” (2015) created by Nagler and his frequent collaborator Alexandre Larose, a filmmaker from Montréal. Positioned around issues of situation and public art, the project engages the radical potential of a cinema unrestrained by convention.

You have come across the cinema in one of its three locations over the course of ten days in September 2015. The first assemblage occurs at the intersection of King Street West and Peter Street (September 10-13), as part of the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival’s Festival Street, where it presents an intimate experience of experimental analogue filmmaking within the hustle and bustle of the large-scale TIFF event. Installed on a closed off portion of King Street West, this first location literally interferes with a traffic zone that is usually set aside for vehicles. After Festival Street closes, the cinema moves to 8-11 Gallery at 233 Spadina Avenue (September 14-16), where it is sited in a large plaza in front of a tiny structure which houses the gallery and shares a space with Interim Measures, an 8-11 exhibition and performance by Chris Lee, Brady Cranfield, Jamie Hilder. Located in the heart of Toronto’s Chinatown district, the cinema rubs up against the unusual gallery space, the politically charged artwork, the neighbourhood shops, and the encroaching gentrification of condo towers that fill Toronto’s skyline. Finally, on September 17, the cinema travels to its last destination in front of Artscape Youngplace (180 Shaw St), settling into the landscaping until the closing of the project on September 20th. Here the cinema sits slightly off the sidewalk, building a relationship with the heritage building that houses artists studios and galleries, accessibility structures such as a wheelchair ramp, outdoor gardens, and an often-ignored driveway that acts as a key entry point for the day-to-day operations of the building and its inhabitants. This situation draws attention to the juxtaposition of modern and historical architecture, the evolving purposes of urban spaces, and the double-edged role that art plays in neighbourhood revitalization, which can often exclude low-income members of the community even as it works with the best of intentions to create a space that is beautiful and vibrant for other residents. It is possible that the cinema similarly displaces in its act of occupation.

The placement of the structure on a road, in a plaza, and on the sidewalk interrupts a normally transitory experience of public space in the city. Like the pedestrians which pass it, the cinema is simply a temporary visitor to these concrete, motionless, and enduring spaces. Although a city changes over time, that duration is glacial compared to human experience—architectural change happens over months and years while memory often fades after minutes, hours, or days. The form of the Situated Cinema mimics architectural permanence, but is actually ephemeral—disassembling and collapsing before re-assembling elsewhere. This disjunction between how the cinema operates, and how architecture normally acts, asks us to consider the differences and similarities between the two objects, and how they co-exist within the city. It may raise questions around architectural design and the place of less formal buildings in an urban landscape that often flows at breakneck speed. In this sense, the Situated Cinema proposes a rupture in the durational, architectural and normative sense of dwelling and urban space.

As a cinema, the mobile, temporary nature of this structure emphasizes the construction of viewing space as something both physical yet intangible. Movies transform the theatre into any other space and time simply by turning off the lights and turning on a projector. Ghostly light streams down the aisles, to wrap around the viewers’ bodies and caress the screen in front of them. Through that invisible touch, light shapes the space into something completely new—a tropical forest, outer space, Paris, Mumbai, the Canadian tundra. Spectators are transported from their physical site into an imaginative space conjured in the duration of viewing. Even the most vivid photograph just cannot have the same effect: it is only by spending time in that newly-created place that viewers can feel as if they have actually visited there. The cinema creates a theatrical zone—a bubble where space and time can operate differently—that enables the spectator to step into an alternate reality. However, it also contains a simultaneous disruption of this illusion, by staging the spectator’s body alongside the screen in the Situated Cinema (unlike a traditional theatre which forces distance). The two almost rub against one another, and when viewed through the visual portholes, external spectators glimpse the internal, cinematic space and time, while remaining outside of it.

Solomon Nagler and Alexandre Larose’s film “pilgrimage” (2015) is inseparable from the experimental architecture of the Situated Cinema. The four and a half minute film loop was created by manipulating found footage of a pilgrimage in a crowded urban space, where the faithful stagger on their knees in front of a temple. By stepping into the Situated Cinema spectators enter a temple of their own, dedicated to viewing the ephemeral and transitory, where their bodies are contorted to fit the space and react to a relationship with the vision that appears before them. The spectator’s standing body relates to the kneeling figures, watching through the camera’s eye like one of the figures observing from the plaza. However, though the footage is clearly photographic, it does not completely support the realistic and immersive cinematic transportation typical of a narrative film. Tinted with nostalgia, the old Super 8 footage is bleached and scratched, and the manipulations done by the artists emphasize a kind of abstractness in the image. Figures are blurred and haloed with colour, scratches and distortions of light often obscure the action, and the materiality of the film itself becomes the space that the spectator must enter. This faded and cracked footage resembles fragmented human memory―or the spiritual visions that are sought by the pilgrims―more than a realistic experience of unfolding events.

Like the pilgrims, the film ritualistically repeats its actions, spinning from beginning-to end-to beginning endlessly. The projector that constructs the illusion of moving images heats up and wears away at the fragile film images, destroying it at the same time as it brings it to life. Time in the filmic narrative moves differently than it does in the world outside of the cinema. It jerks and stutters, unfolding in a halted momentum that emulates the kneelers, and the film loop whirring mechanically through the projector. This friction between what we know is real-time and what we experience on screen prevents complete immersion into the illusion of the projection. It draws attention to the architecture that envelops the spectatorial body, the open city with skyscrapers and buildings that host the cinema, and to the other spectators who peer through the small apertures in the skin of the structure, watching you watch and contort in the service of the space.

Much of the dialogue around this work is positioned around issues of situation and public art. In the 1950’s and 60’s, the Situationist International Movement outlined situations as “spatio-temporal events” that constructed powerful moments where everyday life took on new meaning (Guy Debord. “A Report on the Construction of Situations”, 1957). These events were art happenings that interfered with existing mainstream images and ideology. Most often their ideas remained just that—ideas—as they created texts, pamphlets, and images that were circulated to their membership; however many of their concepts were anchored around performances or large-scale architectural disruptions of living and public space in an effort to make their surroundings uncomfortable or strange. The Situationists thought art could stimulate a new attention to the world around them, in order to transform viewers’ clichéd experiences of spaces to which they had grown accustomed. The motivation behind this act was to use art as a catalyst for social and political transformation. Although less political, this project similarly positions moving image art and the cinema space as a medium for public intervention. It removes cinematic experiences from the formal, rigid architecture that is designed to disappear with darkness, and instead deconstructs and reconstructs cinematic experience into something unexpected. A Situationist situation forces a reconsideration of our ways of being in the world. By making the cinema mobile, redefining the body in terms of the screen and projector, and asking spectators to consider their role within the theatre and within their urban spaces, this project aims to do just that.

In disrupting expectations, this work provides a new type of engagement, one which consists of layered memory, fictions, and contexts. Spectators in the mobile theatre simultaneously experience multiple contexts: the Situated Cinema, their ideas of a cinema experience, the film-image itself, the temporary location, and the broader urban environment. Images and situations overlay on the sky and cityscape, rubbing together in a complex gesture of writing and erasure, with each context layering on the next, and creating a palimpsest of experience that enables spectators to bring their own stories and memories into the project. This overlay underscores the multiplicity of our experiences, and is heightened by the intersections between projection and architecture. Enabling spontaneous discovery and audience interactions, the unusual space and situation of the structure draws attention to the ways in which cinema shapes our bodies and culture, while creating an unforgettable embodied experience.

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