Posted on 09/10/12
Image: 12 Angry Films, Jesse Jones (2006)
Desire at the Drive-In
In her recent essay Temporality, Sociality, Publicness: Cinema As Art Project, writer and academic Maeve Connolly notes how in recent years artists have radically reshaped cinematic space by looking beyond “the ontological concerns of the medium of film” to instead focus on “cinema as a social form”, experimenting with how “film is ingested and re-functioned in a new context” by devising architectural interventions that specifically engage with “the social temporalities of cinema-going” in the public realm.
One such mode of intervention has taken a literal approach; with individual artists replicating drive-in cinemas as public art projects. Although traditionally a form of mass entertainment originating in 1950s America, and largely associated with the passive consumption of mainstream films, Connolly examines the re-articulation of this almost extinct mode of spectatorship via the supposed engendering of ‘publicness’ through the shared experience of engaging with temporary cinemas, focusing on how static and mobile make-shift models, inhabiting both former industrial sites and gallery contexts, encourage counter-publics, or alternative ‘public spheres’ to emerge by bringing together disparate social groups through the sense of collectivity facilitated by replica film theatres. By way of illustration, Jesse Jones’ site-specific redevelopment cinematic project 12 Angry Films (2006), and Phil Collins gallery-based static drive-in Auto-Kino! (2010) are cited by Connolly as key individual works that restage the drive-in with a renewed socio-political agenda in order to “appeal to nostalgic desire for a form of publicness imagined to exist at an earlier moment”.
But despite its capacity for engineering sociality, there’s an undeniable aspect of phantasy to contemporary reimaginings of the drive-in – a notion largely existing as an imaginary phenomenon lodged in the collective consciousness of cinema-goers – particularly for a European audience, where this nostalgic emblem of Americana is projected and constituted through cinema itself. Both 12 Angry Films and Auto-Kino! employ acts of mimicry in order to resurrect this trope for a contemporary audience. In a mutual homage to Hollywood blockbuster entertainment, both projects are replete with snack stands and specific radio frequencies broadcasting film audio to car stereo, yet differing widely from the original referent by screening programmes which reflect the spirit of Third Cinema rather than its Hollywood counterpart, re-signifying this rose-tinted cinematic model as a platform for collaborative practice and radical political action, rather than wholesome, passive entertainment.
As a “cultural ruin open to reinvention” it is therefore revealing to see the drive-in being most recently re-appropriated by a curator, rather than an individual artist, at the recent Peckham Artist Moving Image festival. Drive-In, curated by Elise Lammer, swerves the predominant appetite for mutable internet-based practices apparent within the festival programme by instead staging an anachronistic artists’ moving image event to scrutinise the erotics of the drive-in as a cinematic space for transgression and performance, as well as novel social interaction.
Like previous iterations, the bare bones of this temporary cinematic model remained, where guests were invited to enter the confines of strangers’ cars in order to view a selection of artist films and videos screened, on this occasion, inside a Peckham multi-storey car park. In her own words, aware that the specificviewing conditions “can actually affect our experience of an artwork”, Lammer’s Drive-In positioned the parade of parked cars alongside a field of sculptural objects, exploiting the opportunity of playing with “that difficult yet exceptional environment”, and thus heightening the status of these temporary ‘viewing vehicles’ as peculiar aesthetic objects.
This particular re-appropriation of the drive-in is materialistic in scope, above all emphasising our relationship to vehicles as objects of phenomological concern. Lammer explains, “I'm personally quite fascinated by cars and our bond to them, I'm particularly interested in how society fetishises them”.
An affect also evoked in the Auto-Kino!film programme, appraised by Maeve Connolly for “featuring many films celebrating the car as a scene and object of erotic desire”, primarily signaled by Kenneth Anger’s Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965), while the emotional impact of watching such films, according to the exhibition press release, further “positions the viewer as a desiring subject”.
Central to the ‘passion pit’ of drive-in culture is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the complex operations of desire, relatively unexplored by Connolly, but present from onset of nostalgic desire in popular imagination, reissuing the past through contemporary culture via the restaging of outmoded cultural forms. This retromania is combined with the scopic desire of the viewer emotionally enticed to look by moving image, and finally the eroticism, or fetishism, aroused by commodity objects, as suggested through the seductive physicality of the car itself.
A sideways look at works by other individual artists further supports the case for cars as physical sites of eroticism in cinematic contexts. From Stuart Croft’s narrative-driven Drive In (2007), an ouroboros tale of desert island permissiveness grounded upon the quintessential trope of the road trip, to Neil Beloufa’s anti-illusionary portrayal of sexually charged teen angst in Brune Renault (2009) featured earlier this year in LUX/ICA Biennial of Moving Images.
But by focusing attention on the queer dialectics of drive-in cinemas, and devising a programme that “focuses on society’s fascinating relationship to objects, simultaneously as commodities and objects of worship”, Lammer’s own Drive-In initiates a bristling encounter between the erotics of private and public spaces via the reflexive potential of projecting moving image, where “the films have narratives constructed around one single object”. In this context the drive-in vehicle becomes analogous to the boundaries between personal intimacy and the public realm; between the libidinal desire of human nature and material culture; replicating the interiority and exteriority between the viewer and object, or drive-in screen. As Thomas Morgan-Evans has previously described, these drive-in cars are “great status symbols […] private glass worlds, panoptic bubbles, machines of heroic individualism, for seeing and being seen”; indeed “art machines in more ways than one”.
Amy Budd is LUX writer in residence for October 2012, she is a writer and researcher based in Norwich. Since graduating from Goldsmiths with an MA in Contemporary Art Theory in 2009 she has been a regular contributor to the online magazine This Is Tomorrow, and has featured writing in the periodicals n.paradoxa and Kaleidoscope. She is currently working as a Research Assistant for Norwich University College of the Arts, and is the steering committee chair of OUTPOST Gallery, Norwich.