An Infinite Séance

How authors managed to escape YouTube
and curators got rid of interactive installations.

Several days ago I was in the jury of Film Winter in Stuttgart, an Expanded Media festival, and it made me think a lot about moving images.

In the times of Cine Fantom Club, which was based at the Museum of Cinema in Moscow, we often discussed the fate of short films and the situation in which they always found themselves, or, more exactly, into which they always seemed to be forced. Theatre director and founder of slow video movement, Boris Yukhananov used to say that the programs put together by festival curators were "ghettos", meaning the curators' lack of respect for authors and films alike, which showed in the way films were forced into each other's context, and all of them - into the concept developed by the curator, just because he or she needed to compile a full-length program that would last at least 90 minutes. The reasoning behind this was that no one would ever go to the theatre solely to see a one-minute, or even a twenty-minute film.

The situation had continued for a long while, especially in film museums and on film festivals. But now, at last, short films are starting to claim some space of their own. Lately, several new ways of screening short films and videos have come into existence:

I know how film- and videomakers managed to carve such a comfortable niche for themselves, and what they have to pay for these aristocratic comforts.

It's not because video art is making its comeback, like they say in festival booklets. It isn't. Of course, it's tempting to draw parallels between video installations of 70s and 80s, and the out-of-movie-theater-screenings that we see so often today. In fact, something entirely different has happened. And it's not that much about video art as an object or an installation. Rather, it's about an installation as a form of film screening.

The story started around 20 years ago, when European experimental film festivals expanded their focus and turned their attention first to video and then to new media, which they understood as art produced using computers. Gradually, they converted into media festivals. From a technical standpoint it meant that from now on, festival events took place not just in theaters, but in exhibition spaces, too - such spaces were used to construct computer installations, largely interactive ones. Sometimes it resulted in great exhibitions, and sometimes in horrible ones, but in both cases, viewers and curators felt a little cheated: sure, they saw something, felt a taste of something new, pushed buttons here and there and, perhaps, even saw a glimpse of themselves on the screen (video tracking is the shame and at the same time the biggest success of interactive art), but did they have a chance to experience anything great, anything that touched them deeply?

Besides, festival staff hated placing this additional burden on their technicians and watchmen: computers had to be switched on and off, reloaded if necessary - a pain in the neck, because buttons, keyboards and wires were disguised as well as possible to keep them out of sight, which made getting to them very problematic.

For these and many other reasons, interactive installations never turned into anything significant. Curators were happy to get rid of them as soon as the time was right, which happened about a year and a half ago. The right time brought cheap (significantly cheaper than before) projectors that provided excellent quality, dirt cheap but sharp flat screens, DVD players that cost next to nothing and vacant exhibition space.

Now, when film- and especially videomakers are working on their next project, they can select from two equally great screening options: a movie theater, or a compartment in an exhibition hall.

If they choose the latter, it means that they will have to abandon the idea of having their film subtitled - the subtitles will be replaced by a plaque at the entrance to the compartment - and get used to the idea of an infinite séance, a looped screening. In an exhibition hall, the screening has no beginning, and no end. The possibility of a viewer entering the hall exactly at the beginning of a film is infinitesimally small. The possibility that someone who has arrived in the middle of the screening will not only stay until the end, but also watch the beginning that he or she has missed, is smaller still.* This is why artists tend to choose formless stories, without a clear beginning or ending.

It is also necessary for artists to work with the space they are given: they can try to use it to add new meanings to what they are showing, or toy with the idea of "spatial film", splitting their image into several screens or projections, telling parallel stories like Mike Figgis in his Timecode, using different angles or soundtracks. In other words, it takes a well-thought-out project to earn a separate screening room.

Otherwise, you're relegated to the ghetto of compilations, or your films are screened on monitor in the corridor with headphones for the viewer, the way it's happening in the Pompidou Center in Paris, at the exposition Le Mouvement des images, or else, YouTube - every short film director's greatest fear. Short films seem to fit the YouTube format so well that for their directors, the perspective of finding themselves in the sea of amateur videos and fragments of TV shows is very real. And very frightening - because on the net, it's much more likely that a film will go unnoticed than in a 90-minute program compiled by a festival curator.

If you take a look at film programs presented at the festivals of extended media such as Film Winter, Impact, EMAF and others, it's easy to see that directors are more and more producing for exhibition halls. Even on theater screens, we can often see films intended for looped viewing (although they are only shown once) or multiscreen films (yet only one of the multiple images they consist of.) In such cases, authors talk to the audience before or after the screening, explaining how their films were really meant to be shown - a strange, but perhaps temporary, phenomenon.

*The worse the weather, the greater the chance that a viewer will stay. Exhibition halls are usually furnished with benches or pillows for viewers to sit or even lie down for a while in semi-darkness.

Olia Lialina

Translated from Russian by Alya Ponomareva

Read Part 2