The Cinematic Body
This series on The Cinematic Body' will run over 8 sessions and will be led by curator Maxa Zoller. The weekly sessions are supported by a website where participants will be able to access and to post connected events, reading lists, files and information for each session.
In the last decade film and video installation art has produced a new set of critical ideas about our attraction to immersive film environments and the desire to experience the engulfing quality of virtual reality. Over 8 sessions this seminar series The Cinematic Body will scrutinise different aspects of ‘physicality’ inherent in the allegedly most ephemeral medium of all, film. The seminar will analyse the history of the film apparatus in experimental practice, be it as the ‘ghost in the machine’ in DADA performances or in the form of Marxist materialism in expanded cinema works. But we will also examine more theoretically film as an organic body moving through time. Film has always played a key role in human perception and phenomenology; Étienne-Jules Marey used film for scientific investigations of body movements and George Meliès explored the psychic potential of film conjuring up a fantastic world beyond the body. The human body, its absence and the artist’s attempt to compensate for this lack has been key to moving image art and will be one of the central issues of this seminar. Questions around medium materiality are highly timely since in the light of the digital revolution our notion of physicality is undergoing radical changes. By directly addressing the issue of the visitor’s physical experience, film and video art encourages a new form of ‘thinking through the body’. Movement, sound, scale and the technical apparatus, the flexibility of projection scale and location, and film’s historical relationship to popular entertainment like the vaudeville cinema and later home television and the internet, are the elements around which the seminar will frame a historical investigation of the cinematic body.
1. Early Cinema and the birth of the modern body
Étienne-Jules Marey’s pre-cinematic experiments in chronophotography represent human movement as a series of successive stills, which freeze, compartmentalised and deconstruct the body. The modern body was a body viewed through the machine, fragmented, as in Marey, or transcended, as in Meliès. Fragmentation and transcendence, analysis and sublimation are the cornerstones of the medium of film. They have deeply influenced experimental film production and its theorisation. The first seminar will introduce the key points of discussion, such as the relationship between cinema and the politics of representation, technology and perception, the body and identity.
Sortie d’un Usine, Lumière Brothers, 1895
How it feels to be run over, Hepworth Company, 1900
The Countryman and the Cinematograph, P.W. Paul, 1901
The Big Swallow, James Williamson, 1901
The Impossible Journey, George Meliès, 1904
2. Physical Cinema: the DADA body
In 1935 Walter Benjamin famously noted that DADA film had a “tactile quality”, which “hit the spectator like a bullet”. Is it a coincidence that one of the most influential DADA films, René Clair’s Entr’acte, 1924, opens with a close up of a mouth of a canon shooting a ball ‘into’ the audience? Dadaists did not watch DADA films, but watched film as DADA: André Breton performed an early form of ‘zapping’ by quickly walking in and out of local cinema screenings, Man Ray projected films onto the bodies of his audience and Picabia presented Entr’acte as part of a ballet performance. This session will examine the way in which DADA undermined traditional cinema viewing by experimenting with the relationship between the stage and the audience, the apparatus and the body.
Entr’Acte, René Clair, 1924
Ballet Méchanique, Fernand Léger and Dudley Murvey, 1924
Chien Andalou, Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, 1929
3. Acrobatics in Time: Samuel Beckett’s clowns on film
Didi and Gogo, the two protagonists in Samuel Beckett’s famous theatre piece Waiting for Godot pass their waiting time with meaningless actions, with nonsense. But they execute nonsense with the utmost seriousness and dedication pushing their bodies to their limits. It is their nonsensical killing of time through collaborative acrobatics that is then the art. Like the acrobatic sculptures of Sol Lewitt who noted in 1969 that “irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically”; like Robert Morris’ dance performance Waterman Switch, 1965 and the physical acrobatics of Bruce Nauman’s Slow Angle Walk, Beckett Walk, 1968. We will look at the way in which film’s potential to represent duration enabled a Beckettesque investigation of the relationship between the body, time and art.
Waterman Switch, Robert Morris, 1965
Art Make Up, Bruce Nauman, 1967/8
Slow Angle Walk, Beckett Walk, Bruce Nauman, 1968
Sleep, Andy Warhol, 1963
4. From Dance to Film: the Art of Yvonne Rainer
One of the most celebrated innovators of modern dance, Yvonne Rainer’s engagement with the body can be described as ‘Cagean’ in its examination of ordinary movement, the denial of affect and the emphasis on the dancer as a ‘doer’. When Rainer shifted from choreography to filmmaking in the early 1970s, her intention was to work with a more “democratic” medium, which would allow her to question the politics of the audience/performer relations on a different level. In her films, Rainer deconstructs the film apparatus as if it was a performer’s body, a characteristic aspect of critical film practice of the 1970s.
Trio Film, Yvonne Rainer, 1968
Lives of Performers, Yvonne Rainer, 1972
Film About a Woman Who… , Yvonne Rainer, 1974
Jeanne Dielmann 3 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Chantal Akerman, 1975
5. Film as Skin: Expanded Cinema, video art and the apparatus
The expanded cinema works of artists and filmmakers around 1970 sought to disclose the physical potential of the medium film. Working with the film apparatus in an almost ‘artisanal’ way, artists such as Tony Conrad, Taka Imura, Malcolm Le Grice and Anthony McCall created film environments sometimes involving multiple projections, which emphasised, examined and played with the body/apparatus relationship. In the light of the radical shifts of the 1960s, these works were indicative of Amelia Jones’ concept of the ‘activist artistic body’. An examination of the physical position of the body in the world became a starting point for a socio-political debate about identity, class and gender.
PieceMandala/End War, Paul Sharits, 1968
Horror Film no 1, Malcolm Le Grice, 1971
Line Describing a Cone, Anthony McCall, 1973
Take Measure, William Raban, 1973
Projection Instructions, Morgan Fisher, 1976
6. Territories: the documentary as other body
"The Jews rediscover fiction. The Palestinians fall into documentary", notes an off-voice in a scene showing the return of Jewish settlers and the death of Palestinians in 1948 in Jean-Luc Godard’s Notre Musique 2004. If the documentary film becomes the only weapon of marginal and suppressed societies, then its very form inhabits an otherness, which counters mainstream aesthetics. In the light of post-colonialism, feminism and the gay rights movement the discourse around the politics of representation inspired some of the most important British filmmakers, such as the Black Audio Film Collective and Isaac Julien. Here, the representation of the ‘other’ body was linked to the documentary film, its history and poetic potential.
Territories, Isaac Julien, 1984
Handsworth Songs, Black Audio Film Collective, 1986
7. Electronic Flesh: the techno body
Marshall McLuhan’s utopian idea of the ‘global village’ of new technology turned into technophobia in the 1980s when mainstream feature films such as David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, 1983, conjured up a nightmarish scenario in which a television set transmutes into human flesh. At the 1987 Documenta 8 Marie-Jo Lafontaine’s video sculpture Les Larmes d’Acier (Steel Tears) showed the repetitive movement of bodybuilders on a giant wall of 27 television monitors, which set new standards for video art. This session will explore the way in which the fusion of man and machine reached a new climax in fashion, music and most importantly, film, of the late 1970s and 1980s.
Theme Song, Vito Acconci, 1973
Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman, Dara Birnbaum, 1978
Videodrome, David Cronenberg, 1983
8. Bulimic Bodies
The last session will explore the question of what kind of body we inhabit today. Is it fair to say that the industrial of the early and post-industrial body of the late 20th Century gave way to a virtual form around the time of the millennium? The “cinematicised spaces” (Frohne) of large immersive film installations in the white cube seem to be related to Rosalind Krauss’ concept of the ‘hyperspace’, a “space, which is somehow no longer masterable by the subject, seeming to surpass the reach of understanding like an inscrutable emblem of the multinational infrastructures of information technology or of capital transfer.” What kind of body does this ‘hyperspace’ produce?
If 6 was 9, Eija Elisa Athila, 2002
Pickelporno, Pipilotti Rist, 1992
Between You and I, Anthony McCall, 2007