I was floored for a moment today when Eric Prince introduced us to what he referred to as the “photofilm” trend on the photo sharing website Flickr.com. The user-generated practice involves adding minimalist moving elements to a still photo—from what I can gather, this can be done in production or postproduction—in order to create a “moving picture” that is nevertheless not cinematic. As Prince pointed out, the photofilm could just as easily be thought of as a short film with little movement, but the rhetorical framing of the practice indicates that some amateur digital photographers feel compelled to give motion to photographs without ceding these images to the territory of cinema. It’s not cinema; it’s photography with just a touch of motion. How provocative that there can exist this desire for moving pictures alongside an aversion to what we think of as cinema. Perhaps cinema for some carries too much historical weight or too much narrative baggage. The first example Prince showed us deepened my intrigue. The photofilm—I didn’t catch the title or photographer’s name, but I will provide these when I find them—offers a figure standing on a beach while visual details in the image gently pulsate in response to wind and waves. A striking soundtrack fills in the aural environment with rolling waves and squawking gulls. This naturalistic soundtrack seems to me a salient element of the photofilm. Come to think of it, cinematic sound was a conspicuous absence in today's discussions in general, with a few minor exceptions.
Like Prince, David Rodowick also talked today about contemporary art practice. His talk was sprinkled with references to various moving image artists and works, with sustained attention to Victor Burgin’s Hôtel Berlin (2009). Rodowick discussed the virtual cinematography in this computer-generated “film” as an intervention in our conceptions of cinematic movement. Together with Prince’s talk, Rodowick’s talk reminded me of how much the art world has taught us and continues to teach us about cinema. Each in their turn, 16mm, video, and digital cinema became essential material for aesthetic inquiry by fine artists not primarily tied to the study of cinema per se. Despite art's oblique relationship to the academic study of cinema, some very astute ontological, phenomenological, formal, historical, and sociopolitical investigations of cinema come from cultural producers who identify foremost as contemporary artists rather than filmmakers. As such, I’m talking less about the established tradition of experimental filmmaking than about the moving image works we find in galleries. This is the stuff we often don’t even think of as cinema, even though, as Rodowick pointed out, contemporary art engages extensively with the culture of cinema (“the remembered film”), such as in works by Douglas Gordon, Andy Warhol, and Richard Kerr, to name only a very few. A 2006 exhibit at NYU’s Grey Gallery, titled “Moving Pictures”, “explore[d] the mutual fascination between fine arts practitioners and filmmakers in the early days of the new medium [i.e. 1880-1910]” (http://www.nyu.edu/greyart/exhibits/movingpictures/movingpics.html). Given the complementarity of cinema and contemporary art, I’m surprised by the way standardized assumptions and protectiveness about cinema studies’ object of study—a major theme in yesterday’s talk by André Gaudreault and in some of today’s talks—discourage scholars from tuning into epistemological examinations of the moving image happening outside the academy. (As an aside, I share Barbara Klinger’s curiosity, which she posed to Rodowick, about additional sites beyond contemporary art where one might find moving images that trouble our ideas about cinematic movement.)
There is a certain irony in the way that, after the hard-won victories of classical film theory in establishing and positioning film as a form of art, cinema scholarship has for the most part neglected contemporary art practice as a site of knowledge production about cinema. While artists and curators eventually warmed to incorporating cinema into their institutions, regardless of the medium’s industrial and commercial origins, the gatekeepers of cinema studies have been less attentive to what contemporary artwork has to say about moving images. In research I did a few years back on the reception of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle (1995-2002), I found that while art critics and historians touted the epic film cycle as a game changer, it barely registered on the radar of cinema critics and journals. Presumably cinema studies was not terribly interested in the cinematic dabbling of an art world brat. When Barney subsequently returned to filmmaking, proving his commitment to the medium, a handful of film critics decided to take him on. Perhaps there has now even been a scholarly response to his work, though I would have to follow up to see. This example suggests that the disconnect between contemporary art and cinema studies has to do with disciplinary, conceptual, and discursive boundaries. It also has something to do with the different cultural forms and institutional spaces in which we do contemporary moving image studies. We study cinema in theatres, on DVD, and on computer screens, but the study of cinema in galleries is still relatively rare. At the same time that photofilms don’t want to be associated with cinema, cinema scholarship shies away from contemporary art.
I feel cinema studies has something to gain—particularly in this moment of such disciplinary instability—from the insights of contemporary moving image artists, who, in the end, are asking many of the same questions we find ourselves tackling at this conference. Film scholarship encourages us to think differently about what we see, while artists offer ways to see differently. I see potential in this exchange.