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Cinema Ergonomics

I spotted a couple of really interesting articles last week, each reflecting on the way audiences experience cinemas spaces.

Mark Cousins’ piece in The Guardian (‘Middle-class rules deaden too many arts venues. Let’s fill them with life and noise‘) makes the argument that many great spaces for film are unwelcoming to working class audiences. Meanwhile, over at The Double Negative, Josie Sommer reccounts her recent experience of watching the ICA artists’ moving image programe at Cornerhouse Manchester (‘Adapting The Way We Watch Film: ICA Artists’ Moving Image Network‘), and is left questioning if cinema spaces are the right setting for artists’ film.

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Some welcoming faces at the ICA moving image screenings

Both pieces suggest ways in which cinemas can unintentionally alienate people. For Josie Sommer, this comes from the programming itself changing her perceptions of the space. Does normal cinema ettiquette apply for artists’ film?

“is it acceptable to eat during an art film screening? I decide no, but why? Is this the same as being in a normal cinema?….  The cinema space has changed, and for all its natural comfort seems suddenly unfamiliar… Rather than my feeling of excitement mixed with relaxation that usually washes over me at the cinema, viewing art films here feels like waiting for a lecture.”

She goes further, suggesting that it is the innovation of showing artist film in a the cinema space that somehow undermines its ability to be ‘a cinema’:

“Although the ICA and all of these galleries are, commendably, promoting this placement of artists’ film in cinema as an innovative and engaging experiment, it seems almost retrograde in the sense that it boxes art films into the cinema, and strips the cinema of what it is — a space that is desirable to be in.”

This is a very subjective experience, but generally as cinema-goers we have a certain set of expectations that are different to when we visit a gallery.  Artist film in galleries often has a fleeting audience who happen upon the work. Many years ago, cinema worked in a similar fashion, with rolling programmes of the same film allowing people to come in halfway through a film and leave once they’d caught up to that point on the next screening. Nowadays financial limitations would make it extremely difficult to devote a screen to a 45 min niche programme for the entire day.

I agree with the article, in that making space for artists’ film is commendable, but it is not easy. It’s a tricky challenge and one that I’ve wrestled with myself through the Small Cinema project. In 2009 I changed a gallery in Liverpool into a ‘cinema’, as a way to bring an audience to local artists film. The novelty of the experience provided a fun theatrical frame for the works. But this and other similar examples rely on the energy of the unusual setting as a one-off event, which is hard to sustain.

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Small Cinema in View Two Gallery 2009. A little red velvet goes a long way in a white cube.

I believe there is an inherent value in creating space for artists film – it is a radical act. Generally though, programming artists film requires thick skin – if one person comes for a screening I would be inclined to count it as a great victory. I wonder if the difficulty in creating audiences for the ICA events is also in part due to the programming structure. This is a top-down approach – the ICA mothership, beaming its programme to the regional beacons who in turn can transmit the offical message to the local populace. Compare that to the attendance when a cinema like FACT or Cornerhouse simply provides a platform for local artists at their occasional short film nights. If the aim is is to build an audience and distribution network for artist film in the cinema, perhaps a mix is required. If you’ve ever tried to put a gig on in a club, you’ll know that whilst it is important to create a stage for touring artists, it’s the local band who brings the crowd.

But there are other factors at play in this equation than simply the dark arts of programming. What Mark Cousins’ article does well is to make the point that both the grand architectural gestures and the small details of space count in shaping our experience and our sense of being welcome there . The article isn’t even aimed at the mall-scale consumer alienation experienced at the Odeon or Vue, but the established independent cinemas that many of us, myself included, will loyally champion:

“Now, most good arts venues have children’s programmes and outreach and inclusion policies, and they really want to involve the whole community. But so often, their sleek lines, or facades that look like office buildings, their malbecs and chorizo-studded menus are too culturally thin… at worst, our arts venues scare people or make them feel stupid or small.”

I recognise this kind cinema, and I’m a big fan in many ways, but I would agree that whilst they aim to be ‘inclusive’, their design, pricing structure (and menu!) suggest they actually aspire for a middleclass clientele. I love the architecture of FACT in Liverpool, but my mum and dad would think they’d entered a spaceship with a polished concrete interior. Cousins uses the menu as another example where class boundaries are clearly defined, by taste and by cost. Will it be the “malbec and chorizo” for £8.95, or perhaps would you feel happier with a chip butty for £1.50?

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a real menu option, and not even a brioche bun in sight

Beyond the menu though, Cousins makes some interesting points about what he calls ‘hi / lo’ culture – that ability of a space or an experience to combine both the aspirational and serious with the fun and informal. He uses his own experiences as an organiser with the Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams and as a punter at the Traverse City film festival to make the point that that things can be done differently – fun can be injected into the proceedings, the rough edges can be left on, and the threshold for particpation kept low.

I think both these articles point to the fact that as audiences we are becoming more engaged in how we want our cinemas to be (think of the recent twitter uproar from Cineworld customers about allocated seating). They aren’t the institutions we remember as children or teenagers anymore. They have taken on many forms, from the supersize american-owned multiplex chains to the sleek ACE funded institutions, but also to the grass roots spaces and radical events that populate the Screening Film map. I think now more than ever we have agency in creating new spaces for film, and in shaping existing ones. For the established cinemas, both Cousins and Sommer suggest that they need to loosen up a bit, but that if they can mix their hi and lo culture, they’ll have a loyal audience to support them.

 

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Sam Meech is a an artist, cinema fan, and founder of Screening Film. Based in the North West, his life was changed by a screening of a documentary about Townes Van Zandt in a small Berlin cinema. Find him on twitter @videosmithery

 

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