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At the End of Cinema, This Thing Called Film   

Elena Gorfinkel



The perfect vision has no duration and is not durable. This axiom is at the heart of the notion of film history.
            – Paolo Cherchi Usai



Film can do without cinema once and for all.
            – Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder


A 16mm film projector with no take-up reel, which unspools discarded, de-accessioned celluloid onto the ground, in a pile that grows steadily over the course of the exhibition – Light Spill evokes an abandoned cinema, a projectionist who has fled her station, and an analogue technology that has been left to fend for itself, mutatis mutandis. Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder stage the scene of film as orphaned object through the temporal labour of moving image installation. Collaborators since 2000, Gibson and Recoder unite the rich traditions of the experimental film (particularly its structuralist and materialist strands) and the multi-modal sensibility of expanded cinema that emerged in the 1960s, in which the moving image was woven into the labile space of performance, sound and audience interaction. Their larger body of work explores this interstice between avant-garde film practice and the incorporation of moving images and time-based media into the museum and art gallery.

Light Spill’s contemporaneity, its currency, is one that insists on the surplus value of the medium’s mechanical and materialist base, made all the more poignant in the wake of cinema’s evanescence. For the past fifteen years, if not longer, the ‘death of cinema’ has been announced, debated and contended with in the film industry, film culture and film criticism/theory. Pragmatically as well as rhetorically, this declension is dependent on changes in the economics of theatrical exhibition and distribution, on the onerous fate of film preservation, and perhaps, most visibly, in the eclipse of an analogue medium with the arrival of digital formats. Film’s indexicality, we are told, gives way to the moving image’s new status as information and data. Counterfactually, Gibson and Recoder posit cinema's much-mourned decay as coincident with the resolute, stubborn recalcitrance of the film object's materiality. Their work reminds us that film, even as it draws ever closer to the vagaries of the art gallery and its attendant market, bears both a museological gravity and a radically contemporary weight, in the ‘becoming cinema of art’.

Distinguishing between cinema (as institutional practice, ideological frame, immaterial idea) and film (the material object which gives cinema its life, provides its substrate), Gibson and Recoder confront the moving image’s historicity through a reassembly of its physical components. With the surgical clarity of vivisection, film’s organs – screen, projector, celluloid – are broken down into ever more discrete mechanisms and processes. A series of displacements and relays unfold. A take-up reel is replaced by the floor, converting the film strip into a contingently wending, looping, tangled sculptural form. The institutional location and necessary darkness of the cinema theatre is exchanged for the light of the gallery space, a light that overlaps with an image tendered through an unfocused lens, through which the projection of dispossessed films, image fragments, produces a painterly, unfixed, aleatory frame. In place of theatre seats, we have a bare space, in which the viewer is free to wander in the round, to pause on whichever detail most compels them amidst the mechanical dramaturgy of the act of projection. The film screen, historically the object of an indubitably immersive spectatorial attention, is both diminished and expanded, substituted with the gallery wall.

Thus, the representational contents of the projected image and, as a consequence, a history of encounter with and a way of relating to that image, is subordinated to the refurbished processes and technical strategies that summon it forth. The de-realised screen pulls us backwards, anachronistically, against teleology, towards another swelling tide. Gibson and Recoder’s modified apparatus and installation-performance unveils the ‘back end’ of projection, made suddenly organic, corporeal – another material substrate exposed. The film strip itself is stripped, slipping, spilling from its previously seamless embrace of the technology which housed it, provided its conventions of exhibition and reception, and once gave it a coherent shape, a distinct place. The spectacle’s motility is reallocated, slithering in reverse towards film’s disposal and disposability.  Film: now a pile of snaking, swirling, luminescent entrails, so much waste matter spit out from the corpus of cinema’s invisible archive. Nevertheless, a vibrant refuse that refuses to remain dead.

Light, an essential element of motion picture production and projection, is multiplied and refracted, illuminating film as the vital remains of a vanishing cinematic ideal. Light cannot contain film, but spills out, through film and beyond it. If film spilling entails loss – the nightmare of film preservationists’ Sisyphean struggle against the ravages of time on an unfathomable body of unknown films – light spilling invokes an expanded arena of diffusion and admixture, an elasticity regarding what this thing called film, after cinema’s end, might become. Light, in this sense, can give film new contours, another shape, an alternate flesh. Beyond cinema: an other space opens up, of seeing, feeling, approaching film as ineffable object – organic and inorganic, obsolete and obdurate.


This text appeared in the catalogue of Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder, Light Spill, curated by Elena Gorfinkel, Art History Gallery, University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, 27 January – 10 February 2011.


from Issue 1: Histories


© Elena Gorfinkel January 2011.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.