Nuts & Bolts: A Cinema of Contraptions
What if the Lumière brothers never invented their cinematograph? What if another prototype from the Lumière lab had captured the collective imagination instead, one with its own cultural impact and of equal popularity? Recent Lumière exhibitions in Paris (2015) and Bologna (2016) have demonstrated how the Lumières saw so many more possibilities and applications for moving images, many of which they tried to develop themselves. The exhibitions included such impressive technologies as holographic photography and panoramic film projection in full 360 degrees.
The cinematograph is an invention without any future.
– Louis Lumière
Three-dimensional images and an immersive all-round experience are ambitions that have haunted cinema since its inception. In recent years, the promotion of 3D has led to the digitisation of film theatres. Virtual reality is once again being hyped, after a first wave of speculation about its potential in the mid-1990s. Over the last two decades our audio-visual tools have evolved into much smaller and yet increasingly more complex devices. The ubiquity of mobile screens has now made the definition of the cinema experience extremely flexible. It is as if we have arrived at an audio-visual crossroads similar to the one in the late nineteenth century.
The first decade of the cinema has often been characterised by the term ‘the cinema of attractions’. The wondrous workings of the cinematograph was an integral part of each séance; every projection of images felt like a performance and cinema was still very strongly associated with the realm of circus, magic and vaudeville. The earliest projections of film were organised in settings such as funfairs and amusement parks, amidst a host of other visual attractions. Several types of optical toys and illusionistic instruments entertained audiences in both the public and private spheres. Only gradually, with the success of the nickelodeon and its non-stop projection of short films, did film screenings start to develop a distinct set of conventions.
Two decades into the digital revolution, filmmakers are no longer makers of film: they make images move with a whole range of media. What is left of cinema? Is there still a common consensus about the usage of the word ‘film’? While the industry is now once again looking for new formats in order to boost its business, many artists are either coming up with their own variations on the cinematic apparatus or are engaged in ‘circuit bending’ it. These prototypes range from the most sophisticated electronics to deliberately ‘primitive’, purely mechanical devices. What all these contraptions produce is an optical illusion, a technological effect that attracts us through its ‘otherness’. The current revival of interest in expanded cinema and paracinema goes hand in hand with all sorts of hybrid media practices, which could be labelled a ‘cinema of contraptions’, a form of audio-visual art that foregrounds its own unique technicality to produce a novel sense of wonder.
From computer-driven eye tracking to the vintage charms of anamorphosis and the zoetrope, creative chaos reigns now that there are so many options possible. Both high-end and low-tech, the Nuts & Bolts programme illustrates how many diverging technologies are currently being used by film and audio-visual artists. The focus is on the maker’s independent use of media, free from industry pressure or commercialised formats. It focusses on how individual makers confront this incessant drive for innovation. Some develop their own variation on the latest algorithms, while others take a deliberately anachronistic stand and bring us back to the roots of the moving image before it turned into conventional film.
Working against the rhetoric of technology as progress and promise, these artists recalibrate technology and its effect on mediation. They modify obsolete cinematic techniques to develop alternative interfaces that produce moving images. Their media archaeology is in many ways a follow-up to the critical attitude of filmmakers from the 1970s who, inspired by Foucault’s notions of the apparatus and the dispositif, questioned and deconstructed both the technological and ideological constellation that we submit ourselves to while watching a film. Every kind of cinema presupposes an ideal spectator, and then imagines a certain relationship between the mind and body of that spectator and the screen.
The artists in Nuts & Bolts clearly are entering into a dialogue with the history of media, paradoxically through the design of new technological dispositifs. Each prototypical contraption engages the amazed viewer in a specific way. Their installations and performances are laboratories for self-reflexive research on our cultural responses to an image.