Preparations at The Fitzwilliam Museum Where Photography is Banned, photo by Ian White
Now, I’m generalising, and it’s not that I go to many, but 10 years ago when you went to an academic conference on artists’ film and video I always felt lucky to find anything being spoken there that corresponded to what I was experiencing of it from a real-time curatorial perspective. Most of the actual infrastructure that was supporting this work seemed invisible. Not only was the range of works being discussed limited to those most obviously publicly exhibited or those most blatantly canonised, but there was often also a frustrating lack of accuracy in their descriptions, the details of their material/historical/contemporary context, the politics of their histories – which were otherwise so informing my own engagement. To me it’s still an other-worldly business that academia too often regards artworks ‘simply’ as texts, to be translated into its very particular, ritualised language, theoretical set-pieces, strategies and protocols of argument for which the conference is the showcase. But not everything has stayed the same.
Actually a quite legitimate part of what felt like an earlier stumbling-through of this material and how it might be understood was absolutely necessary and absolutely inherent in the nascent history of the form (which is of course still being written) and for the first time in establishing a language by which it might be further, more productively/precisely considered. Since then, there has of course been a digital explosion, a new means of access that came with an unprecedented, exponential increase in the diversity and volume work that could be previewed or referenced if not always seen in its intended format (the ubiquitous ubuweb, distributors publishing compilation DVDs, artists self-publishing online, YouTube, Vimeo etc.). Certainly in London, but I think also in Paris, Berlin and New York public institutions have also increased the amount of artists’ film and video they include, not least in the many different versions of auditoria-based programmes that currently operate (not that these are not always at risk, and to be fought for on every level, or that they are usually only to be found hosted by the museum’s ‘education’ or ‘events’ rather than ‘curatorial’ departments, but these are different points albeit ones entirely absent from the present discourse).
Thus Laura U. Marks’s keynote address on day two of Cinema and the Museum in the 21st Century organised by CRASSH at the University of Cambridge seemed both a summary of the conference itself and a demonstration of this trajectory and its lingering disappointments. The paper was received with enthusiasm that I almost shared, not least for its energy, focus, direction, contextual information, seeming attention to infrastructure and its high-octane, near-jubilant delivery. Marks’s main thrust was that artists today choose to exhibit in galleries rather than via cinema-style distribution (via such organisations as LUX, EAI, Vtape, VDB etc.) because of the amount of money the gallery circuit either does provide or promises to. That economics have eclipsed aesthetics.
She quick-flipped through various organisations’ web-published distribution fees, emphasising figures for one-off, auditorium-based screenings, and compared them (of course unfavourably, if money really is the devil) to a chart that detailed recommended artists’ fees produced by the Canadian government for those showing their work in exhibitions; group shows, solo shows, nationally, Biennials. Of course the latter outstrip the former by multiples of between 10 and over 2,000.
Further evidence was drawn from correspondence between Marks and artists, in particular Kodwo Eshun of the Otolith Group (slighted for their claims of extortionate, restrictive screening fees) and Canadian artists Mike Holboom and Steve Reinke, quotations from whom supported her thesis and its not that oblique anti-museum bent. There was something of a rallying call in all of this that I too feel pretty close to and appreciate, having curated largely for the auditorium for a long time. But it’s not the whole picture.
A conversation with any of these distributors would quickly reveal that their relationships to the museum (and other kinds of galleries) are much more complex than the politicised binary Marks seemed to be implying exists as a mutually exclusive deal between the two. I’m not saying that I’m comfortable with all of this, but: It is actually common that many artists taken into distribution also exhibit their work in museums and sell it via commercial galleries as a limited edition. Artists with historically uneditioned works in distribution have retrospectively editioned them. Distributors, much more often now adopting various kinds of agency models for their operations function in a direct (if publicly not always visible) advisory role to museums, gallerists and artists, helping to establish precedents not only for editioning, but also collecting, preservation etc. in a variety of institutions. Some make direct interventions into gallery/museum economies and collections. Museums and public galleries, meanwhile, in the UK in particular, are the only places that have any hope of offering something like a distribution circuit through which single-channel work could be shown cinema-style. In my experience as a writer – which I think is also shared by some of those in academia, probably to a greater profit – it’s not ‘cinema’ but the museum that is publishing monographs and catalogues that are invaluable resources for research, career enshrinements and a decent contributor’s fee. And as we wait for the final outcomes of Barbara Gladstone Gallery’s acquisition of Jack Smith’s estate, her promise to return back into distribution brand new prints of all of Smith’s films is just the latest (stunning) evidence of commercial galleries working as or with distributors.
Elsewhere there was much talk of the Imaginary Museum and anchoring of papers around Andre Malraux’s Museum Without Walls, while others that I heard merged, a little too indiscriminately, big-name artists with independent/art house directors; Philippe Parreno, Pierre Huyghe, Anthony McCall, Martin Arnold, Peter Greenaway, Agnes Varda, Alexander Sokurov and finally Christian Marclay’s The Clock took a bit of a battering – still, familiar faces. Volker Pantenburg gave a sensitive overview of the cross-over from auditorium to gallery beginning with the brilliant volte-face of Michael Snow who turned Wavelength the film into Wavelength the gallery video by also making it one third of the length, its three sections shown superimposed and simultaneously, the absurdity of which struck some chords.
Two papers avoided cinema entirely in favour of television. Ironically they were perhaps the most gripping. Steven Jacobs gave an incredibly useful, detailed account of Belgian documentarist Henri Storck’s TV documentaries on painting, describing precise camera movements and the isolation of details as both the means by which a painting might be analysed rather than just narrativised – and also destroyed. While Maeve Connolly presented the beginnings of her research around recent exhibitions of television in the museum including MACBA’s high-profile ‘Are you ready for TV?’. She discussed ideas about ‘publicness’ and linked artists’ interest in the form with their previous one in experimental film, seeing both as media seized upon in the very moment of their own crisis, while suggesting a stimulating re-conceptualising of the museum along televisual lines as a self-generating, self-advertising model of entertainment not unconnected to Raymond Williams’ early analysis of the form, and in particular his ideas about scheduling and ‘flow’ in his 1974 book Television: Technology and Cultural Form.
There was an appalling screening of the Louvre-commissioned Visage (2009) by Tsai Ming-Liang presented with misplaced self-congratulation in a lecture theatre where no-one knew either how to turn the house lights out or to correct the key-stoning of the image. But the greatest irony in all this was how these things and my own contribution to a ridiculously short public panel at the Fitzwilliam Museum where I outlined my 2007 project Kinomuseum, unfortunately did little to draw attention to what I gradually came to realise was the biggest elephant in our room. The museum was actually pretty well accounted for, criticised, eulogised, conceptualised and sometimes cast into doubt – longer exhibition runs than anything currently found in ‘cinema’ for artists’ work perhaps the reason for such a deluge of discourse. While cinema – ‘cinema’ – remained shockingly undefined at a time and in a place when it would have seemed critically urgent to turn one’s attention to doing just this. ‘Cinema’ seemed to stand for an undefined other to the gallery, and as such, as a hopeless conflation of artists’ work, directed feature films, something occasionally signifying an economy, a means of production, or of display that frankly did not constitute it as category with any of its otherwise suggested political intent and without any intellectual rigour whatsoever. That is, as something so entirely imaginary one might start to wonder what, if anything, of it exists.