January 20, 2007
"The Museum as Outdoor Movie Screen" or, What IS Cinema?

The January 18, 2007, online edition of the New York Times features a review of a new film by Doug Aitken called Sleepwalkers.

The reviewer, Roberta Smith, discusses the film's content to a degree, but keeps shifting her attention back to something ordinarily overlooked in a movie review: its circumstances of exhibition. This is perfectly understandable, since exhibition involves eight projectors showing the film on three different exterior surfaces of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

Smith asserts this event as a prominent example of an interesting convergence: "archivedio or "videotecture." She points out that the buildings in Times Square already feature "commercial versions of the form" and wonders if "private homes may soon glow with a self-taught variety."

In an indirect way, this piece (both the film itself and Smith's review) speaks to David Denby's piece in the New Yorker of January 8, 2007, where he discusses the "platform agnosticism" of young audiences, who may be just as happy (if not happier) to view a film on a private device--even something as small as an Ipod--as on a big screen in a theater. But, Denby asserts, "If the studies send too many movies home, it will be hard to distinguish them from television" (or, one might add, any other video product).

One obvious answer to this problem resides in Aitken's project: eight projectors throwing images onto the sides of buildings is surely a movie, and surely not television or an Ipod. But of course this is an extreme and rare instance, and one questions Smith's speculation about films projected on the side of private home given the expense and logistics of this kind of project.

But it sharply reminds us of another key point from Denby: "Platform agnosticism may flourish among kids, but platform neutrality doesn't exist." That is, the nature of the exhibition will profoundly (if at times unconsciously) influence the nature of the content. Smith's analysis of "Sleepwalkers" as an art film seems to have more to do where it is projected--the side of MoMA--that with its actual content. "Mr. Aitken achieves," she writes, "an almost unholy truce, if not an alliance, between spectacle and art." But what if Aitken's film were instead projected on a Times Square building? Would it then be something commercial instead of art? What about a film projected on the side of a warehouse, the Washington Monument, or a mountain?

If indeed the category of "movie" is to continue to have a specific cultural meaning, the means of exhibition--the kind of screen, the location, and the associations of the location--will remain crucial elements of that term. As these recent pieces by Smith and Denby remind us, the product cannot be separated from its platform, and as new platforms are envisioned by artists and producers the content will inevitably change.