Erika Balsom Interview
SONIC ACTS RESEARCH SERIES #5 By Arie Altena In February 2014 Sonic Acts presented the Vertical Cinema project in the Dan Flavin Hall of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. The programme included lectures on verticality in film by Philippe-Alain Michaud, Bart Rutten, Noam Elcott and Erika Balsom. Their lectures referred to many examples from the history of film, contemporary arts, theatre and nineteenth-century visual spectacles of the use of verticality in moving images. They made clear that Vertical Cinema could expand in many directions, and that it resonates with several tendencies in the contemporary culture of moving images. We used the opportunity to pose some questions to film scholar Erika Balsom. Arie Altena: How does Vertical Cinema connect with the ideas you are working on? Erika Balsom: My recent research examines contemporary art practices as a way of thinking about what happens to cinema after digitisation. Since the early 1990s, many artists have been engaging with the moving image in ways that I see as producing a reflection on the material, architectural, and aesthetic mutations of cinema in recent years. I think we can see a project like Vertical Cinema as allegorising some of the transformations of cinema after digitisation, such as the increased variability of the aspect ratio and the new exhibition spaces into which the moving image has travelled. It is interesting to me that Vertical Cinema uses 35mm film and keeps the recognisable CinemaScope aspect ratio, but then literally turns it on its head. We see a familiar apparatus deployed in an unfamiliar way, gesturing to continuity and change at the same time. This very much connects to a key aim of my research, which is to see how cinema is preserved and transfigured by technological change and by its increasing presence in the contemporary art context. AA: One of the interesting things that happens with our project Vertical Cinema is that although at first the idea of vertical cinema seems to be totally marginal, the longer you investigate it, the more cultural references pop up. Some are mentioned often, like the writings of Sergei Eisenstein and the balloon panoramas. Others come as truly pleasant surprises. EB: Chris Welsby’s Shore Line from 1977 is an interesting example in this respect. It was first shown in London and then in Amsterdam in 1980 at the Festival of Nations. The work consists of six 16mm projectors turned on their side so that they project in portrait format. Each one shows an image of a shoreline with incoming waves. They are placed side by side so that the horizon line goes directly across to create a kind of panoramic image. There’s a fascinating tension between horizontality and verticality at play. But the even more interesting aspect is that Welsby purposefully doesn't synchronise the projectors. The inability to achieve complete synchronisation has always been a problem in multiscreen projections – Abel Gance complained about this while realising the triptych projections in his film Napoleon (1927) and it persisted as a problem in the Cinerama system. You could always see the seams dividing the panels of film. Instead of regarding this as something to overcome, Welsby actually uses it to disrupt the representational integrity of the image. He breaks the illusion that the viewer might have transparent access to the natural scene he depicts. There is an insistence on the aleatory relationship between the individual vertical images, and this makes any synthesis into the horizontal aspect ratio incomplete. The vertical image always retains something of its autonomy by being out of step with its neighbour. To me, this is a very interesting work to discuss in relation to Vertical Cinema, but perhaps one that is less known. AA: If you look at art practices now do you see different aspect ratios or portrait-sized screens being used more often? EB: The digital image makes it much easier now to manipulate the aspect ratio than ever before. With photochemical film, the aspect ratio is tied to the shape of the image on the filmstrip. And in turn the shape of the image is tied to the needs of camera manufacturers and so on. There is a close relationship between the storage medium and the display medium in photochemical film, which is simply not true for the digital. In vernacular digital culture we find a really large variability of aspect ratios and that offers certain aesthetic possibilities to artists. AA: But isn't that narrative a little bit more complex? There is also standardisation in the world of digitisation, the push to use certain defaults. The more that software and a certain mode of production become commercialised the more difficult it is to manipulate. One thing running through our Vertical Cinema project has been the use of celluloid as a critical statement on the industrialisation and standardisation of digital film. The entire digital video production process has become closed. So I wonder to what extent various aspect ratios are used in the digital vernacular? EB: You’re absolutely right to point out that there are standardised digital formats – if someone uses Instagram it’s a square picture, whether you like it or not – but it is undoubtedly the case that there is a greater variety of formats than with photochemical film, and also a greater ease in treating the frame as malleable. If you’re an artist working with digital video, you can really make your projection whatever shape you want. And that’s something that wouldn't necessarily apply to photochemical film. Though there is, of course, a whole history of analogue examples of unusual aspect ratios, so it certainly isn’t something that began with the digital. AA: One of Noam Elcott’s examples at the Vertical Cinema event was a film by Malcolm le Grice made with 9.5mm film, which was already obsolete when he used it. How would you compare the field of cinematic experimentation, for instance, the expanded cinema of the 1960s, to the use of multiscreen and various aspect ratios within contemporary films made by artists? EB: One way of thinking about these examples from the perspective of contemporary artists’ cinema is exactly as a continuation of that lineage of cinematic experimentation that goes back to Le Grice and the broader tradition of expanded cinema. But obviously the status of the moving image in relation to art institutions has changed greatly since the 1960s and 1970s. The moving image has gone from something that was relatively marginal to something that is today absolutely endorsed. In 1960s expanded cinema there tended to be a critical imperative to break apart the apparatus as we knew it, as well as a claim that the spectator would become critically active in negotiating the screen space. I don’t think we can make those claims on the part of most contemporary works. I think their interests are very different, as is their relationship to art institutes. Doug Aitken makes highly spectacular multiscreen works, yet we see none of the same criticality there. But lots of works from the 1960s and 1970s have received renewed scholarly and curatorial attention because of this recent work in contemporary art. Until the last fifteen years or so these experimental works were generally not considered as part of art history in any significant way. Now they are. AA: Could you reflect on this change in attitude? EB: I have two answers. One: it’s very belated. The canonical histories of experimental film and art have been breaking down for a while and things reached a point where these expanded cinema works were readmitted and reassessed in light of their undeniable importance. But the other reason, particularly true within academic film studies, has to do with the major question confronting the discipline right now is: what is cinema? There is a return to an ontological inquiry that wasn't really a part of the conversation on film in the 1970s or 1980s, or even the 1990s. What is cinema? What are the kinds of variable instantiations of cinema? How can we think of a classical apparatus, but also how can we think outside of it? These are all questions that are now unavoidable for anybody talking about the moving image and yet they have confronted artists and filmmakers for ages. So I think that’s part of the reason why we have had a lot more beginning PhD students saying: ‘I’m working on 1960s and 70s expanded cinema’. Why? Well, these are simply terrific and important works. But there’s also a sense that they provide answers to certain theoretical questions that are quite pressing in the discipline now. And it’s about time. AA: This is certainly related to the explosion of different forms and formats of moving image…the different screens that we have, the mobile screens, the huge screens used for advertising... EB: In my book Exhibiting Cinema in Contemporary Art I wrote about what is called ‘the classical cinematic apparatus’. It still persists today in some places but certainly not in the way that it used to. What has happened is that this apparatus has disintegrated and elements of it have travelled and combined with things that historically weren’t a part of cinema to create new hybrid forms. I see this not as a dilution of cinema; it’s not a bad thing. It’s actually a really interesting point of tension that allows us to think about what cinema was, and also about its potential new forms. But I think that it’s impossible to adequately consider the use of the moving image that we see in contemporary art and visual culture without fully understanding the history of cinema and film theory. That tradition is important to helping us understand the present. AA: A very radical view would say that classical cinema actually only spanned a very brief period in the history of moving images, if you go back to Renaissance theatre and the magic lantern shows, phantasmagoria, etc. EB: Of course. But I do see the classical cinematic dispositif as a unique and privileged form, for all kinds of reasons that would take too long to get into here. I would also argue that it’s within the discipline of film studies that we find the most interesting accounts of the ways those older media forms turned into cinema. We owe our understanding of this longer history of moving images to work that has been done largely within the discipline of film studies. Film theory provides us with a way of understanding this longer history, and also where we might be headed. AA: Had you ever thought about the theme of verticality in cinema before we asked you to do a lecture on it? EB: A little bit, primarily in relation to Tacita Dean’s Film, which I’ve written about in a forthcoming article. Also, as a graduate student I attended a seminar on Eisenstein where we read almost everything he ever wrote that was available in English, so I was familiar with his text on the dynamic square. Tacita Dean’s Film was particularly interesting to me because it demonstrates the specificity of analogue film through attributes and techniques primarily associated with digital media, such as compositing, artifice, and special effects. We might see Dean’s use of the vertical screen not simply as a way of producing a work that would be visually effective within the Turbine Hall, but – like her use of compositing – as a gesture that stakes out a difference from digital forms of imaging by doing something closely associated with the digital in 35mm film. The portrait aspect ratio is, after all, perhaps most familiar to us now from smartphones. AA: There are obvious reasons why our field of vision is horizontal. But maybe there are other reasons why verticality is virtually absent in cinema? EB: The very obvious reason for the dominance of the horizontal is that cinema inherited nineteenth-century theatre traditions. In his piece on the dynamic square, Eisenstein briefly remarks that economics is also a motivator for horizontal screens: if the screen is horizontal, more people can fit in the theatre and have a decent sight line. I could be forgetting something, but basically all of the examples of vertical cinema that I know are non-narrative cinema. Cinema obviously began as a non-narrative form but quickly became a narrative form. I think it’s possible to imagine what a vertical narrative film would look like, but it’s quite difficult because we would probably imagine that only one person could occupy the screen at once – or the figures would be very, very small. Narrative cinema is dominated by an interest in humanity, in human encounters, and human conflict. Again, this is something that cinema inherits from earlier forms, in this case the nineteenth-century novel. It is hard to see how vertical cinema could be a satisfying form for depicting human encounters and conflict. AA: When we started the Vertical Cinema project we also imagined how it could be used for more narrative forms, even though in the end the first films made for it are non-narrative. EB: Some of Bill Viola’s video work in portrait mode has narrative moments. Melanie Smith and Rafael Ortega did a landscape piece in vertical format, but I can’t think of any really narrative works. But I’m sure there are film students who have made narrative films using a phone, and I imagine we’ll see more experiments with this in more mainstream contexts in the future. AA: Often the use of vertical motion in narrative cinema is the least narrative moment in a film. Going up and down in an elevator, speeding downhill. It’s a special effect; it’s the cinema of attractions. It ties into the whole idea of the nineteenth-century visual spectacles that Erkki Huhtamo talks about. EB: It’s worth noting that the diversity of projected image entertainment in the late nineteenth century is really immense, compared to what cinema quite quickly became in the twentieth century. Reflecting on this diversity, I think we clearly see the incentive to keep cinema open and preserve the wide variety of cinematic or pre-cinematic forms, rather than having everything turned into the classical format. Erika Balsom lectures in Film Studies and Liberal Arts at the Film Studies Department, King’s College, London, and is the author of Exhibiting Cinema in Contemporary Art (2013).