copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 52, summer 2010

Placing artists’ cinema

by Kate Mondloch

Review of Maeve Connolly, The Place of Artists’ Cinema: Space, Site and Screen (Bristol, UK and Chicago, USA: Intellect, 2009).

It is not uncommon to find, in a book one has been invited to review, a reference to the commissioning journal: after all, the journal has some affinity to a text if they’ve chosen to review it. A reference to Jump Cut in Maeve Connolly’s The Place of Artists’ Cinema: Space, Site and Screen, however, does more than suggest affinities in readership. It also handily reveals the hybrid and category-defying nature of contemporary artists’ film and video, the subject of Connolly’s book, and a genre she calls “artists’ cinema.” It was Jump Cut, we learn on page 139, that published convicted felon John “Sonny” Wojtowicz’ letter protesting his treatment as a criminal and contesting the accuracy of Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet, 1975)—the Warner Brothers film based around his attempted robbery of the Chase Manhattan Bank in Brooklyn in 1972.

Wojtowicz’ saga—the robbery, media coverage, prison time, letter writing campaign, and so on—is, in turn, the subject matter of artist Pierre Huyghe’s The Third Memory (1999): a paradigmatic example of artists’ cinema and one of Connolly’s case studies. Huyghe’s video installation re-establishes Wojtowicz as the protagonist in his story, offering him the opportunity to re-enact the bank robbery from his own perspective, albeit post-prison and twenty years later. The Third Memory consists of this new footage shown alongside the (revealingly similar) movie version, together with footage of the actual robbery, press clippings, and Wojtowicz’ Jump Cut letter. Evaluating this complexity with apparent ease, The Place of Artists’ Cinema adroitly explains how works of artists’ cinema such as Huyghe’s signal a thoroughgoing collapse between the “original” and its multiple copies, or, in Connolly’s terms, between the “place” of production and that of exhibition.

The formation of social space and the role of the market are core concerns both of The Place of Artists’ Cinema and of the artistic production that this timely book documents. Explicating the book’s title is a handy way to begin. Connolly (Lecturer in the School of Creative Arts at Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Dublin, Ireland) broadly defines artists’ cinema as post-1990 works of art in which artists have “made claims upon cinema” within the institutional context of the visual arts. While the artists Connolly writes about have worked with a wide range of artistic media, her category of artists’ cinema is limited to works that “have claimed narrative modes of production associated with cinema, as well as the history, memory and experience of cinema as a cultural form.”(9) The term itself, which the author favors over the somewhat more accommodating “artists’ film and video,” is intended to be an umbrella category encompassing experimental film and video as well as sculptural media installations, and pertains to work shown in various institutional contexts, from art museums to biennial exhibitions to commercial galleries.

The title’s reference to “place,” instead, reflects Connolly’s political commitment to examining contemporary media art in relationship to larger discourses about the public sphere. Artists’ cinema, argues Connolly, has increasingly emphasized the collective and social dimensions of reception associated with cinema in recent years; the “models or prototypes of collectivity” associated with cinema history are thus especially compelling for practitioners. (9) Indeed, the book’s overall conceit is that artists and curators “stage publicness” in works of artists’ cinema, such that the gallery or museum serves as a “stand in” for other kinds of public space. (64, 214) Connolly’s project, then, is to draw out the critical relevance of these artistic stagings of collectivity, with a special emphasis on pieces by artists who are especially concerned with issues of labor and who, like Huyghe, take critical approaches to the economic circumstances of their production.

Predominately focused on the UK and broader European context, this generously-illustrated and highly readable book is organized into five chapters. The first two focus on historicizing and theorizing the topic of place and the public sphere in contemporary artists’ cinema while the next three are devoted to case studies of exemplary film and video works arranged roughly chronologically from approximately 1997 to the present. The latter chapters feature close readings of well-known but under-studied art works by Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Carlos Amorales, Gerard Byrne, Tacita Dean, Jeremy Deller, Stan Douglas, Willie Doherty, Aurelien Froment, Pierre Huyghe, Jaki Irvine, Aernout Mik, Tobias Putrih, Anne Tallentire and Jane & Louise Wilson, among others. While the author makes passing reference to precedents for artists’ cinema in the art of the 1960s and 1970s—such as Anthony McCall’s expanded cinema experiments or Dan Graham’s video installations (works which have become increasingly canonical, as evidenced by the growing literature in the field)—Connolly’s investment is squarely in the art of the past fifteen years. As such, the book intrepidly sets out to offer a critical framework for thinking about art that is barely a decade old, making it an invaluable resource for media art practitioners, curators and critics. While the book offers rich insights for cinema studies and art history alike, its intended audience is primarily the former: as Connolly adroitly explains, “studying artists’ claims upon cinema has potential to inform an understanding of its [the cinema’s] history, present and future.”(219) This objective, combined with Connolly’s extensive analyses of under-theorized works and the book’s masterful bibliography, makes this an ideal advanced teaching text as well.

Chapter One, “Between Space, Site and Screen,” offers a cogent literature review and proves beyond a doubt that post-1997 moving image art works require new critical frameworks. Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s 2007 The New Spirit of Capitalism (in which the authors describe the reorganization of post-1968 capitalism from Fordist structures toward more flexible models of organization and employment similar to those found in the art world) is a key reference throughout this section. The author establishes her focus on the formation of social space drawing from both social geography and art history, and the subtleties of the differences between the overlapping and interdisciplinary discourses of place, site and location are thoughtfully addressed.

Chapter Two, “The Place of the Market,” is especially strong. In investigating the points of convergence between the economics and politics of place, Connolly presents an historical account of funding and distribution models for experimental moving image works, from the non-profit co-op model characteristic of the 1960s and 1970s (such as the Film-Makers' Cooperative in New York or Nouveau Collectif Jeune Cinema in Saint Ouen, France) to more recent models seemingly aligned with the forces of globalized capitalism (such as the “artist-investor”-directed corporation V22). Connolly offers a very convincing assessment of the pervasive emphasis on place in artists’ cinema, particularly those sponsored by “public” art fairs and museums, as being deeply implicated with European cultural policy and larger economic forces. She demonstrates how the dramatic rise of multiscreen video projection since the 1990s is informed by the broader staging of “publicness” in contemporary art museums, art fairs and biennials, and she points to how the predisposition of artists’ cinema to reinvention and mobility cannily reflects concerns of the art market.

Connolly continues this line of reasoning in Chapter Three, “Multiscreen Projections and Museum Spaces,” in which she analyzes the significance of the publicly-funded museum or gallery as the privileged place/space of exhibition for artists’ cinema. The case studies bring together powerfully evocative if rather diverse works: Jane and Louise Wilson’s Stasi City (1997), Doug Aitken’s eraser (1998), Wille Doherty’s Re-Run (2002), Isaac Julien’s Baltimore (2003), Jaki Irvine’s The Silver Bridge (2002), Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s Consolation Service (1999), Shirin Neshat’s Turbulent (1998), and Anne Tallentire’s Drift: diagram vii (2005). Connolly astutely concludes that “the multi-screen video projection is implicated within broader institutional and political imperatives involving the staging of ‘publicness’ in contemporary art museums,” both in terms of the publicness signified by the setting and location of a work and the public characteristics of the exhibition context. (64)

“Event Sites and Documentary Dislocations,” Chapter Four, looks at selected production and exhibition tropes shared by commercial and artists’ cinema, and attends to what she calls a documentary turn in the latter. She makes a productive link between “site-specific” projects that engage with the history of a particular place or community and Michael Renov’s well-known theorization of documentary’s impulse to record/reveal/preserve (Renov 1999). (114) The final chapter, chapter five, “Cine-material Screens and Structures,” introduces the term “cinema-material” to describe works that explore materiality by referring to cinema and/or screen architecture within an art context (whether museum, gallery or exhibition pavilion). Here she appropriately wonders if what she characterizes as “nostalgic” explorations of the architecture of cinema and/or the materiality of film might actually point to anxieties generated by the emptiness of public space, perhaps communicating a fear of “emptiness” at the core of contemporary democracy (one might think of the oft-discussed “phantom” quality of the public sphere).

The conclusion elaborates a thesis that has been implicit throughout; not only do works of artists’ cinema provide a way to think more deeply about cinema, but also, “the staging of the cinematic, whether through technologies of projection or architectures of display, can involve some form of reflection upon the structures and processes through which experiences of collectivity are constituted.”(218) This is important because it allows Connolly to thoughtfully engage a wide array of works on their own terms, with the goal of illuminating and contextualizing rather than proto-canon formation. The author’s commitment to assessing contemporary moving image art works beyond the dominant models of criticism versus complicity or autonomy versus appropriation is one of the book’s greatest strengths.

The Place of Artists’ Cinema’s rigorous interdisciplinary inquiry into the conditions of production and exhibition associated with post-1990’s artists’ cinema, both inside and outside the institutional context of contemporary art, is a welcome and long overdue contribution to the extant literature. Moreover, the organizational trope of “cinema” works well in an era that is arguably post-theatrical and post-cinema, yet still profoundly cinematic. That said, it is worth mentioning that The Place of Artists’ Cinema acknowledges but leaves relatively undeveloped certain key unresolved issues associated with the specificities of site and space in artists’ cinema; for example: the question of how to think about art works that are repeatedly reconfigured for presentation in various spaces, including those that exist both as art objects and arthouse films (such as Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006)), and those that have been issued in both single and multiple screen variants (Ahtila’s Consolation Service comes to mind). Connolly helpfully draws out the links to theorizations of the service economy as a possible explanation, but it would be nice to see the critical consequences of this suggestive flexibility and interchangeability developed more, especially since one gets the sense that this talented critic has a lot more to say.

No single book can cover all of this terrain, of course, and it is to her great credit that Connolly unearths many timely topics which, as she correctly asserts, merit further study. The ambivalent status of artists’ cinema in online collections, archives and galleries, and the many difficulties associated with teaching artists’ cinema (such as getting review copies and the tenuous legality of classroom screenings) are among the most pressing. By way of conclusion, and, I hope, in keeping with The Place of Artists’ Cinema’s studied commitment to rooting out salient issues related to public space and the social body in artists’ cinema, I have complied a list of websites that Connolly refers to in her book in relationship to the aforementioned topics. Like the book itself, the sites are primarily related to the UK and European context and they span a prodigious range of subjects—from film preservation societies to commercial ventures—and of media art—from film to video to new media; inasmuch as these sites are unfamiliar and/or under-utilized, they may prove catalytic for critics and practitioners of artists’ cinema. It is a high compliment indeed to say that the innovative research inaugurated in this important book stands poised to launch many future studies, both in the pages of Jump Cut and beyond.

Selected list of websites cited in The Place Of Artists’ Cinema in relation to online access, exhibition and distribution of artists’ cinema

Australia. Art-action-research.

The Teaching and Learning Cinema has evolved from the Sydney Moving Image Coalition, which was a filmmakers and film lovers group with a specific focus on Super 8. With the TLC, our interest is in creating screening events and workshops which encourage discussion, and break down the passivity of looking at images. Our curatorial approach is loose and deliberately open source, and we often encourage audience members to bring along their own films. We don’t have our own screening venue, and rely on the generous hospitality of artist run spaces in Sydney to do our thing. Our main focus in recent years has been the re-enactment of key Expanded Cinema works from the 1960s and 1970s.

UK. Preservation and historiography.

The Future Histories of the Moving Image Research Network has been set up to address the issues of sustainability and historiography arising from the growing number of moving image arts database and digitized collection projects in the UK. The project is led by Julia Knight (University of Sunderland) in collaboration with the British Artists' Film and Video Study Collection (University of the Arts London) and REWIND: Artists' Video in the 1970s & 1980s (Dundee University). http://www.futurehistories.net/

UK. Study collection.

Established in 2000, the British Artists' Film and Video Study Collection is a research project led by Senior Research Fellow David Curtis and Research Fellow Steven Ball concentrating on the history of artists' film and video in Britain. The Study Collection welcomes post-graduate researchers, curators, programmers, artists, anyone interested in the academic study of British Artists' Film and Video. The Study Collection is a unique resource, it consists of an extensive range of reference materials including video copies of artists' works, still images, historical posters and publicity materials, paper documentation and a publications library.

UK. Conservation and research.

REWIND is a research project that will provide a research resource that addresses the gap in historical knowledge of the evolution of electronic media arts in the UK, by investigating specifically the first two decades of artists’ works in video. There was a danger that many of these works might disappear because of their ephemeral nature and poor technical condition. The project will conserve and preserve them, and enable further scholarly activity.

“We are re-mastering and archiving both single screen and installation work on Digital Betacam. These new masters are deposited at the University of Dundee and the Scottish Screen Archive. From the masters DVD viewing copies form the basis of the REWIND | Artists’ Video Collection, for curatorial, scholarly and public access at the Visual Research Centre, Dundee Contemporary Arts and CARTE in central London. This website forms a database or Content Management System with detailed information, technical information, ephemera, reviews and critical texts on the artists & works, paper archive, interviews, oral testimony, clips and still images from all the works with searchable index.”

“ We are also staging screenings and exhibitions at various venues of the REWIND Collection, including re-staged installation works in collaboration with curators.”


France. Distribution, promotion, preservation (non-profit).

Founded in 1982, Light Cone is a non-profit association with the aim of promoting, distributing, and preserving experimental cinema in France. More than 3500 films are distributed in its catalogue. Light Cone is a non-profit making organisation created by Yann Beauvais and Miles McKane in 1982 with the aim of promoting, distributing and preserving experimental cinema. Its remit covers the different historical forms, as well as contemporary research, both in France and abroad.

Its primary mission is the diffusion of the works in its collection, as far as possible in their original format, to cultural structures such as non-profit making organisations, cinemas, museums, universities, galleries and festivals. To fulfill this mission, Light Cone's structure is that of a filmmakers' co-operative, assuring authors (or the rights-holders) the ownership of both the physical support and the moral rights of the works. The collection, the result of 25 years' work, holds nearly 3000 films, videos and digital works. Annually, Light Cone organizes a series of screenings for an audience of professional cultural programmers, which presents new works in distribution (the “Preview Show”).

In addition, to further understanding and distribution of the works in the collection, a Documentation Centre offers researchers and programmers an exceptionally comprehensive collection of documents and works, available for consultation. With the addition in 1999 of the Experimental Film Archive of Avignon (Afea), this collection contains nearly 2600 paper and 4600 audio-visual documents.

Light Cone also, organizes regular screenings in Paris, produces publications and co-productions of film programs both in France and abroad. Many programmers use these as reference points, and multiple collaborations between cinema-related and visual arts institutions have developed over the course of time. These partnerships often result in joint publications.

France. Exhibition and distribution.

The Film Gallery is an art gallery devoted to experimental film.

France. Distribution.

Founded in 1994 under the name Light Cone Video, the RE:VOIR video project is to make available a collection of videotapes of experimental film, a rich and diverse yet fragile body of work both classic and contemporary. Experimental cinema as a daring artistic form deserves a place beside its more commercial counterparts. Each cassette is conceived of as an object of discovery and reflection; the films are often accompanied by a booklet of explanatory texts about the films or unpublished writings by the authors themselves on their work. The cassettes are widely distributed in Europe and in the United States where applicable.

UK. Promotion, distribution, exhibition.

LUX is an international arts agency for the support and promotion of artists’ moving image practice and the ideas that surround it. LUX exists to provide access to, and develop audiences for, artists' moving image work; to provide professional development support for artists working with the moving image; and to contribute to and develop discourse around practice.

Founded in 2002 as a charity and not-for-profit limited company, it builds on a lineage of predecessor organizations (The London Filmmakers Co-operative, London Video Arts and The Lux Centre) which stretches back to the 1960s. LUX is the only organization of its kind in the UK, it represents the country’s only significant collection of artists’ film and video and is the largest distributor of such work in Europe (representing 4500 works by approximately 1500 artists from 1920s to the present day). LUX works with a large number of major institutions including museums, galleries, festivals and educational establishments, as well as directly with the public and artists. LUX receives regular revenue funding from Arts Council England.

The particular focus of LUX is visual arts-based moving image work, a definition which includes experimental film, video art, installation art, performance art, personal documentary, essay films and animation and is inclusive both in terms of context and critical discourse.

The organization’s main activities are distribution - acting as an agent for artists who work with the moving image; exhibition (screenings, gallery exhibitions, touring shows) both independently and in partnership with other organizations; publishing (books, DVDs, websites); commissioning both new art works and writing; research support for curators, researchers and academics; professional development support for artists and arts professionals and the development of research resources. http://www.lux.org.uk/

UK. Collection and distribution.

V22 is a collective art collection. It is structured as a traded, public limited company in which artists and investor-patrons own shares. Initiated and shaped by artists working in partnership with finance and business experts, the collection is grown and sustained on the recommendations of experts and its core artist-owner base.

V22 listed on the stock market because it believed this was an innovative and exciting way for a number of people to share a growing collection of contemporary art and to work in partnership with artists to do so.

The founders of V22 believe this innovative model provides a new structure for ownership of art—a structure which builds upon and connects existing systems for the benefit of all involved. They further believe that V22 opens possibilities to experiment with the existing processes, forms and conditions for collecting art.

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