Back to the Future Essay for Moving Image Arts, Plymouth University

Uncompromising, abstract, a vessel for time before space, the cinema is the perfect site for artists’ moving image, and artists’ moving image is the perfect subject for the cinema. That the two have become estranged from one another belies the myriad resonances which still exist, and are pertinent now, perhaps, more than ever. To secure a future for cinema in the UK which is anything other than moribund means, ironically, to look back, far back, to a past in which an artists’ cinema was indivisible from its other forms, and experiment and curiosity rewarded by custodians and audiences alike.

The current conditions of cinema have changed nothing of its structure; nor, while it might be obvious by looking at its trajectory through the twentieth century why and how artists were gradually written out of its narrative, do they preclude them from being reintroduced. While years of the studio system has served, needless to say, to wholly disabuse UK audiences of the notion of cinema as an artistic or experimental force, structurally, the vehicle still exists: what we watch has changed, yet the way we watch it – at the cinema – hasn’t. The supposition, therefore, that those links are still strong is reason to look towards a future in which they can be better reintegrated, not mourn a past which has divorced them irrevocably.

Though born of the proscenium arch theatre, the cinema as specific architectural space is perhaps better seen as a distillation, rather than development or progression, of its ancestor: a gradual paring-down, attenuation or refinement of its essential characteristics, and, as a living reminder of the Modernist ideal, also an accumulation of the rejection of those that are superfluous; the denial of the space as space at all. It is rather a zone of potential. And the history of cinema as site, after all, is the history of the pursuit of a perfect environment: one foregrounded completely and only by film, in which image completely arrests the viewer, erases the messy world of phenomena and summons instead a weightless, dimensionless non-space, a volume effacing itself in the service of its one lit wall: oddly, a space becoming two-dimensional precisely in order to effect a virtual third. By the time it arrived, sound also conspired to envelop its audience. In this way, it is most useful, perhaps, to think of it not as a physical space at all, but as a space of enchantment: a sacred space, almost.1

A cathedral is rich in decoration, summoning awe and wonder in sight (a vast rose window, a high vaulted roof) and sound (the organ, and the very acoustics of the space itself), and though its altar is arguably its most important component, symbolically, it is plural, multiplanar, with several points of focus. In contrast, while in time it came to eschew decoration, came to be a distillation of itself, the cinema is a reduction of the experience of the cathedral: much simpler, essential, the rose window and the organ alone with no side-chapels, rood screens, fonts or choirs. What matters most of all in each, and what unites them, is that the site is distinct, particular, set apart, ordained for one function – and that that function is concerned entirely with transcendence: ironically, the effacement of (the) space whatsoever.

What is important here, then, is not a sense of the sacred in any specific spiritual sense, but the fact that by being specifically set apart in this way, the space makes possible a particular activity and a particular transcendence. This might take the form of its Modernist and, admittedly, very Western tendency in the mould suggested by Peter Kubelka, among others2, in which all stimuli extraneous to the material to be projected are eliminated; or it might be looser, more contingent on context and location, as with Yto Barrada’s Cinematheque de Tanger.3 Whether or not the former is impossible or desirable is somewhat irrelevant: more pertinent here is the sense that the better the cinema, the better the attention given to the reception of the projected film. If this is the kernel of the cinema as site, then artists’ moving image, surely, is its ideal subject.

Artists’ moving image requires the kind of close viewing that the cinema has been created to achieve; this concentration (indeed, to concentrate, etymologically, is to bring to a common centre, com centrum, which here, helpfully, implies assembly). Arguably, though any film benefits from being shown in a cinema auditorium, and audiences benefit from the sense of assembly it occasions, the proliferation of other platforms mean that the majority of films currently shown in cinemas don’t activate this urgency alone. Which is at odds here – the latest Star Wars film that will also be accessed via home cinema, online, via mobile devices everywhere, or the artist’s work intended exclusively to be seen in a place of quiet, darkness, acoustic deadness, that site written into its very structure, screened for one night only? Is this where cinemas are going wrong: forgetting that they are sites at all, demurring to an indeterminate status as one possible means of accessing a uniform experience which floats freely between different outputs? Keep Star Wars in cinemas, as it’s still better there than at home, but why not give some screen space over to work which activates the specific site of the cinema itself; awaken that dormant function which a century’s architectonics have encoded, to a greater or lesser extent, in every small-town fleapit, every plastic multiplex, every recuperated boutique screen.

Cinemas given over exclusively to artists’ moving image – however unlikely – while an alluring prospect for those with a professional or artistic stake in it, would do little to relieve its isolation, and are perhaps as undesirable as those which show nothing but commercial studio releases. A balanced diet is surely key to recuperating a more mainstream position for artists’ work in the cinema.

At the same time, galleries have embraced the idea of the cinema auditorium, often constructing elaborate self-contained spaces in order to show longer work on a loop. This invariably ends up an altogether unsatisfying, poor man’s version of the cinema space, a corrosive incursion into the role of cinema as site for the cinematic which further limits the experience of viewing artists’ moving image by claiming it as another instance of the primacy of the art market.

The gallery is the site for that work – monitor-based, architectural, performative – which is intended for a non-cinema space. That which is cinematic (a criterion which can be interpreted as loosely as necessary, though perhaps not only that with a beginning and ending, but also intended to be watched from one point to the other without break; viewed by a captive congregation) is better seen in the cinema.4

So if we were to want to reintroduce artists’ work to the cinema, then how? The cinema is presided over by a toxic cocktail of studio-held multiplexes, ersatz ‘independent’ chains and genuine independents, the latter who are variously either so in thrall to, or imperilled by (or both!) the thrust of the industrial machinery and exponential increase of the calendar of giant releases that they fall back on a dilute version of the commercial-only model. Yet in doing so they are seemingly unaware that this is ultimately auto-destructive. By simultaneously affirming that model as the only one possible, by extension, they write themselves out of the picture.

Within this amorphous category of ‘independents’, though, there are those cinemas which have successfully maintained independence in spirit as well as name, and have managed to reinvent something of a more adventurous programme in this relentlessly commercial new order: they prove that an alternative is possible. However, these are few and far between, and either exist only as part of the more liberal ecosystem a large city offers, or diverge entirely from the traditional model, by functioning as cooperatives. The gutsy, omnivorous small-town cinema, fuelled by home-grown programming, is a dying breed.

Hope may lie with the independents, but those commercial forces that have allowed the chains to thrive have established themselves as utterly normative, and the reason behind the gathering intellectual timidity of programmers is a fear of loss of income. This is a smokescreen, a half-truth at best which perpetuates itself. The closer they move to perfect mimicry of the output of the chains and franchises, independent and studio-bound both, the nearer to death they are, whether snuffed out as poor copies of the big guns, or taken on by those big guns themselves if no such provision already exists locally.

There are those cinemas which enjoy regular Arts Council funding yet show nothing but French rom-coms and safe American indie flicks, the funding siphoned off to sidebar ‘artistic’ activity. But demoting artists’ work to a sidebar, as in many larger festivals, beyond insulting the artists themselves, is self-defeating, and a cause if ever for that funding to be revoked. The trouble is, people won’t turn out to see artists’ work in the cinema. Again, this isn’t entirely true, and it needn’t be so at all. Were that Arts Council funding to come with the caveat that it be spent on integrating, rather than segregating, artists’ moving image in the context of the cinema’s wider programme, they might have to think harder about how to do it justice and to attract audiences, rather than consigning it to a certain sort of death in the sequestered space of the gallery (that is, the death of its potential to become truly public).

Inevitably, cinemas won’t make concessions while the threat of commercial collapse hovers overhead (even thinking of them, at present, as ‘cinemas’ is naive, owned as they are by arm’s-length investment outfits or American studios). Change the way the funding is distributed and that threat diminishes. Inevitably, audiences still won’t materialise out of thin air. But change the way artists’ work is programmed in cinemas; make the case for it, integrate it, put it in context, stand beside it, be proud of it and they will; slowly at first, but stick at it and they’ll multiply. Cinemas need to show them why it’s relevant and important and exciting and all the other things you’d hope to encounter at the cinema.

Nevertheless, a certain amount of the hostility towards the cinema as refuge for the experimental is historic, and in part intransigent because of history, or histories. The public antipathy towards art which appears to conceal as much as it shows is partly a feedback loop – they’ve been shown that this is the reaction that work deserves by the very institutions that are supposed to promote it; partly the fault of the class system, or perhaps even more general a very British attitude across the board which incites and harbours a suspicion of anything – classical music, contemporary visual arts – which might classify itself, or be classifiable as ‘high culture’.

Indeed, we are taught to practice a peculiar form of self-abnegation, at once rejecting ‘high culture’ as snobbish, yet practising that same snobbery on that which we perceive as ‘mass culture’. Is this the endgame of a stratified society under so-called ‘late capitalism’, whose strata have distorted so much that to the naked eye there is now only a bulging middle class, the fringes at top and bottom masked, assimilated or vaporised?

Things need not remain this way. This binary logic around ‘culture’ is a lie that has been sold to people: the mythical high/low divide is just a convenient way of parcelling up ‘cultural content’ to fit a predetermined notion of social demographics in favour of easy monetisation, and trackable and predictable consumers and patterns of consumption. You only need to hop across the Channel to see that this needn’t be the case; that actually (with all usual caveats, i.e. that cultural pursuits still confine themselves to a hegemonic middle and centre) there’s a continuum across culture which demands not so much observation of boundaries or barriers. A borderless cultural scene isn’t nearly as attractive commercially, of course.

The spectre that stands behind this all is that of education. Perhaps a large part of the reason why we seem to have demurred so peacefully while a once-vigorous network of independent cinemas has been dismantled is that we were never shown the value of it in the first place: certainly, those who have come to love it have done so passionately, but with few exceptions, it has been the result of an extra-curricular endeavour, not a passion ignited while impressionable and open-minded at school. The way that arts education is delivered in the UK has for long been as a sidebar of sorts: an ever-diminishing addendum to a stolid diet of maths, English and sport. Music and the visual arts risk dropping off the spectrum altogether as contenders for subjects worthy of serious study – and that, inevitably, sets the tone for the way they are perceived by the society which inherits the legacy of that education. By contrast, the wartime and immediately post-wartime generation still perceive the value because of the way they were educated, but, now relatively affluent, time- and money-rich, what their expansive wallets allow, their curiosity has diminished: the scourge of ‘event cinema’ – the very definition of a postmodern crisis about the place of cinema, the value of the live, the former primacy of the unique and unrepeatable forgotten in favour of a bloodless compromise of the always-on and ready-digested – has largely been grown by them, with all the concomitant effects on a vital and diverse cinema scene.

This means that the ability of cinema to include within its meaning both that which is of mass appeal and that which is peripheral, nuanced or hard to classify, such as artists’ moving image – the ability to be magnanimous, effectively – is much reduced, with the result that artists’ moving image no longer coexists within ‘cinema’ as one facet of a larger whole, enjoying a collegiate relationship, and is instead pushed towards the polar extreme of academic study, just as ‘mainstream’ cinema is towards that other pole of popular culture. While the effect on the latter is perhaps less detrimental, both would stand to gain much were cinema once again a more holistic encounter, maximising those points at which commonalities touch and those which crystallise difference, to the benefit of both.

That the fate of cinema is shot through with factors – commerce, education, class – beyond its control is not to say it cannot effect change in them in turn. While we cannot change arts funding overnight, or the way art is approached in schools, or the grip of the studio system, we can work from the other side instead, rekindling the value of cinema as cinema. Reviving a magnanimous, omnivorous cinema – spreading those possibilities maintained by the Star & Shadow or the Cube, for instance, but also dragging them into the mainstream – would in turn affect those things seen currently only as determining factors and reveal in them instead a certain osmosis. Witnessing that cinema can be more than ‘cinema’, as it is at present, would affect the perception of all, from those encountering a meagre art provision at secondary school to those queuing for Star Wars. It would also reassert the cinema as a viable home for much artists’ moving image, as well as that which it currently houses. And that can only be a good thing.

So, perhaps it is time to ask the burghers of culture that, just as former sink inner-city areas can only be redeveloped as prime post-Olympic gated condos once artists have unwittingly made them desirable, cinema was made the force it is not by proposing a narrow monoculture but by revelling in the chance it presented for unexpected encounters and unknown pleasures – and this arose in part from artists and an artists’ cinema. This should be embedded at the heart of our everyday experience, not preserved in a vitrine or accessible only by a handful of hipsters: our cultural pasts and futures are ours, and the sites in which we access them should have the support to be able to take risks, remain vital and embrace plurality. Perhaps it is time to go back to the future.  




  1. Nathaniel Dorsky has written about this eloquently in his book ‘Devotional Cinema’, and the paragraph that follows this draws on his comparison of the rose window with the screen; and Mircea Eliade’s insights into sacred spaces in ‘The Sacred and the Profane’ are pertinent here, too.
  2. Peter Kubelka’s ‘Invisible Cinema’ is mentioned in this interview: An iconic image of its audience is here:
  3. See this interview with Yto Barrada:
  4. Needless to say, with the caveat here that this is not intended as a purist’s argument, and there are of course many grey areas in the space between cinema and gallery, exploited on their own terms to great effect.