21.03.2018 by Kim Knowles
The proliferation of the moving image in the gallery space in recent years has forced a reconsideration of what is meant by the ‘film (or cinema) experience’. Numerous academic studies have been devoted to this area, from Maeve Connolly’s The Place of Artists Cinema: Space, Site and Screen (2009) to Catherine Elwes’s Installation and the Moving Image (2015). Furthermore, the technological shifts of the last two decades have also given rise to a radical transformation of the moving image landscape, with photochemical film (8mm, 16mm, 35mm) now occupying a culturally marginal position – almost invisible within the realms of commercial production yet flourishing in dedicated artistic circles.
One result of film’s relatively new status as ‘obsolete’ or ‘outmoded’ is its transition into the museum or gallery space, where the chemical and the mechanical take on renewed auratic qualities, objects of visual pleasure in their own right. From Tacita Dean’s monumental installation FILM (Tate Modern, October 2011 – March 2012) to the more recent exhibition Celluloid (Eye Museum, September 2016 – January 2017), it’s possible to detect a eulogizing tendency in the art world’s approach to analog film, often expressed in terms of wonderment at its magical qualities. As someone who has been writing about photochemical film aesthetics for almost a decade, I’m not inclined to disagree – film is a unique medium, whose material qualities, distinct from the digital, open up to specific working practices and viewing experiences. But I often find myself troubled by the treatment of film as a relic, fabricated from ‘precious metal’ (D. N. Rodowick in The Virtual Life of Film), or as an art object to be gazed at lovingly, longingly.
Naturally, then, I was intrigued to hear about the exhibition ‘Slow Down! Cinematic Approaches on Reduction’, which ran from 8 November – 16 December 2017 at the Kunsthalle Exnergasse in Vienna. Organized by a group of five film artists – Philipp Fleischmann, Susanne Miggitsch, Sasha Pirker, Viktoria Schmid and Antoinette Zwirchmayr, and featuring ten 16mm film installation works, this promised to be a more radical approach to film in the gallery space. I was already familiar with the work of most of the artists included, predominantly in the context of single-screen projections and, in the case of Schmid, involvement in the artist-run film lab scene. Having screened many of these filmmakers in ‘Black Box’, the experimental strand of the Edinburgh International Film Festival (Rosa John, Johann Lurf, Peter Miller, Viktoria Schmid, Antoinette Zwirchmayr), I was excited to discover how their aesthetic interests and working methods translated to an installation context. I wasn’t disappointed: this was probably one of the most exciting film exhibitions I’ve ever encountered.
What immediately distinguishes the Slow Down! exhibition from others I’ve experienced is the element of scale and the relative subtlety of the gesture. Although the exhibition focuses exclusively on photochemical film there are very few references to the status of the medium as precious or endangered, and the installations are certainly not presented as any kind of swansong. In its material and sculptural form, film is celebrated as a living rather than dying thing, with an infinite range of expressive possibilities. This is not to say that the exhibition ignores or denies the precarious status of film in the digital era; in Sasha Pirker's Closed Circuit 2013, a roll of 16mm film captures the gradual appearance of a Polaroid image, the temporal correspondence of the two media doubly mirrored in their commercial disappearance – 2013 was a crucial year for both Kodak and Polaroid. Obsolescence is dealt with in quite subtle ways in the exhibition, and film is presented not as a homogeneous endangered species, but as an art form capable of reinvention and renewal. This emphasis is undoubtedly related to the fact that the curators are practicing film artists whose proximal perspective breaks down the potentially distancing effect of eulogy.
One of the key features of the Slow Down! exhibition is its sense of playfulness and discovery that is also inscribed into the architectural design of the installation space, where basic wooden shelves and cardboard screens contrast knowingly with the sophisticated sleek surfaces of many gallery interiors. These structures create fluid, open spaces that allow a dialogue to take place between the individual works, as the eye follows a light here, a reflection there, or the line of a shadow tracing the wall, moving the attention constantly back and forth. The room is alive with the rhythmic mechanical chatter of 16mm projectors scattered throughout the space, providing a common soundtrack to this vibrant celebration of film technology. From Peter Miller’s Phenadiscoscope, a 16mm loop of a dancing figure projected onto a disco ball, to Björn Kämmerer's Remote/8 (2008), in which a rotating 16mm projector atop a scaffold sends the image of an airplane flying around the exhibition ceiling, there is an acute sense of artists reinventing the medium, finding new ways to engage with its physical properties and opening up new pathways to bodily engagement. This does not preclude historicity, however, since an acute awareness of the historical rootedness of their practice runs through many of the artists’ works. Miller playfully references the pre-cinematic Phenakistoscope, for example, whilst Viktoria Schmid's The Clouds Are Not Like Either One – They Do Not Keep Their Form Forever (2015) returns to James Clerk Maxwell’s method of additive color mixing for her meditative three-projector, three-screen piece.
I met with three of the curators on 15 December to discuss their approach to the organization of the exhibition, as well as the status of 16mm film in the digital era.
Kim Knowles: Could you say something about how the exhibition came together?
Antoinette Zwirchmayr: The starting point was a small exhibition in an independent artspace in Vienna in 2014 that Viktoria Schmid and I initiated. We invited Sasha Pirker, Philipp Fleischmann and Susanne Miggitsch to exhibit together with us. This was the initial moment to start working in this group of five artists to develop the concept of the exhibition “Slow Down”.
Viktoria Schmid: One of the ideas from the beginning was to work with the architect, Michael Klein. We wanted each installation to have its own space but also that they communicate with each other. That meant to avoid black boxes.
The main intention was to distinguish clearly between film projection and film installation. We wanted to show that film installation is not just projecting a 16mm film, it’s about working with and within the space. The works we’ve included should only work as an installation, not in cinema.
Sasha Pirker: It was very important to us that the structure and the display of the exhibition should represent the concerns of the film installations. What I like about the structure is that it’s elegant even though it’s simple in its cost-efficient materials. Fragile but stable.
KK: The basic, wooden structure is important because it creates a materiality and a roughness. It emphasizes the tactility of the exhibition. I wasn’t sure if I could sit on it, we’re so institutionalized! How did you develop the display?
Sasha Pirker: The development of the display was our main concern. That’s why the architect Michael Klein was an important part of our group, he joined us right from the start. He was also with us during the selection process. The architect orientated himself around the Film und Photo exhibition “FIFO” in 1929 in Stuttgart by the German “Werkbund”. FIFO was the first comprehensive exhibition to present film and photography as art forms in their own right. To quote our architect:
“The purpose of referencing FIFO’s exhibition design is not to engage in historical reenactment, but to bring it back into the present: An industrial wooden frame runs through the exhibition hall, creating projection screens and exhibition spaces, while leaving perspectives open. The viewer enters into a condition where the projected image is the focus. The design also reveals what lies behind the images and thus enables the installations to communicate with one another.”
KK: What struck me when I first walked in was the space, which I connected with immediately. A lot of art spaces can be dry and detached. Film installed in gallery spaces sometimes leaves me cold. It can fetishize film and make it rarefied. You can tell that this exhibition is curated with an element of resistance to the way that film is usually presented in gallery spaces.
VS: One of our intentions was to curate from the point of view of artists who work with analog film and are familiar with this field of practice.
KK: You can really see how much thought has gone into the coordination and orchestration of those pieces. I felt that it was conceived by artists because there’s such a sensitivity to the work. I felt completely immersed in the exhibition and it reminded me a bit of early cinema – the ‘cinema of attractions’.
SP: I think this exhibition is really unique. The realization was very labor-intensive and the exhibition demanded our special technical knowledge on film.
AZ: We always knew it was going to be a bit crazy, with all these projectors and that it was going to be a lot of work. We were all aware of this. I think it’s partly why it worked so smoothly. We knew what we were expecting. We took turns in maintaining the exhibition: Everyday one of us cleaned the projectors, exchanged projector lamps, spliced torn film together or changed film prints, if necessary.
KK: It’s so different to the way other film exhibitions are produced. I’m resistant to setting up dichotomies between film and digital, but obviously this exhibition is a celebration of film.
AZ: It wouldn't be possible with digital because it’s not so physical.
KK: You want it to be a physical experience? You want the spectator to feel something about the material? Is this a response to digital technology?
AZ: I don’t think that we really thought about it in this way. We don’t want to say that one medium is better than the other. Both have a right to exist. But there were some pieces that we considered for the exhibition that were shot on video and then transferred to film.
The importance for us was the analog approach in the concept, the analog realization and as well the analog presentation of each work.
KK: I always think of the projectors as bodies. And there are so many of them! The sound! It holds you in the space, and because they’re so present it stops the fetishization that one finds in so many other exhibitions.
SP: You’re right. I had that experience lately in the Venice Biennale. There was one 16mm projection and everyone was standing around the projector, not really looking at the projection.
KK: Have you noticed the response from the audience in your show? How do people move around? Are they drawn to the projectors?
SP: The fact that the exhibition consisted of 18 film projectors took the sensation of the machines away. People felt very comfortable. For example, one person sat for an hour in the exhibition. Small children loved it too, because it was dark and loud. Imagine, 17 different audio sources becoming one soothing sound scape!
KK: Each piece in this exhibition is really rich in itself. It’s a perceptual, physical, affective experience that you really think about. They’re intellectual pieces as well as experiential.
I was really aware of the space, in dialogue with it. It’s actually nice that it’s grounded in a particular space. The theme of time and temporality holds the pieces together, but then it’s also central to all of the works in some way. Each work needs time to perceive and absorb. Did the title come first or the pieces?
AZ: Some pieces were fixed from the beginning and some were added later. The title came when we talked about how each of us work with the medium. You slow down when you work with film because you think more about what to shoot, you measure the light, you have to load the camera first, etc. And also, when you go into the exhibition you will need to slow down - the second meaning of our title.
KK: The other thing is the theme of ‘resetting the apparatus’. What is your response to the theme? The focus of that project is looking at how artists use ‘old’ technology in new ways.
VS: It is a conscious decision to work with film nowadays. It cannot be compared to the artistic practice of the 80s for example. In 2018 it is another starting point or reason to shoot on film. We’re using it now, so it’s not old, it’s contemporary.
SP: The title of my work for instance is Closed Circuit 2013 so I really put it in the contemporary moment. It’s important that people know that it’s 2013. This work could have been done in the ‘70s but it’s really from today and that’s important. 2013 was more or less the time when Polaroid and 16mm had their big crisis. Technically you could have made this work earlier, but you wouldn’t have because there was no need to discuss these issues about the disappearance of working tools.
VS: Here I see a relation between our works: The trigger to start researching into early color systems for my work The Clouds Are Not Like Either One – They Do Not Keep One Form Forever was the bankruptcy of Kodak in 2012 and the discontinuation of the two color films stocks Kodachrome and Ektachrome.
KK: And that’s what stops these works from being derivative. It’s not just repeating earlier work with materials. It responds to a contemporary context. I think anyone interested in analog film has a responsibility to come and see this exhibition. What will you take away from it?
SP: Our projectors!