Between the cinema and the gallery: film festivals as sites for ‘experimental’ curating

In preparation for the May 24 Research Lab A Sensorium of Cinematic Apparatuses, the students of the UvA MA seminar Curating the Moving Image reflect in their blog posts on a particular aspect of the themes in the required theoretical readings or on the development of the curated EYE on Art evening.

Curation for Festivals
By Ilse van der Spoel

As already explored in texts “Film Festivals, Programming and the Building of a National Cinema” by Liz Czach and “Supporting art cinema at a time of commercialization: Principles and practices, the case of the International Film Festival Rotterdam” by Marijke de Valck, film festivals could be considered institutional mechanisms that can contribute to “the formation of a national cinema” (Czach), as well as the establishment of international networks and co-production markets (de Valck). Additionally, as Jamie June describes in her text “Defining Queer: The Criteria and Selection Process for Programming Queer Film Festivals”, specialized or niche festivals focusing specifically on LGBTQ-related selection criteria and films can also serve to empower underrepresented groups and minorities.

However, none of these texts specifically address examples of programmes or scrutinise the actual selection, programming and presentation of films, but seem instead to focus more on various functions that can be ascribed to festivals, which in turn are admittedly related to or stem from these programmes. While this is important for discussion, I feel that one important aspect is left out from this debate on festivals is the practice of curating and programming itself and specifically in relation to how festivals can be sites for experimentation as well, not only with providing platforms for experimental or innovative films (on a cinematic level), which Marijke de Valck writes about[1], but perhaps by presenting or exhibiting works in innovative ways as well.

Erika Balsom has written extensively about the relationship between moving images and the exhibition modes of the institutions of cinema and the gallery, for example in “A cinema in the gallery, a cinema in ruins” and in her book Exhibiting Cinema in Contemporary Art[2]. Balsom reflects on the difference between the cinema and the gallery space, and how moving images have found their way into galleries as the institution of cinema found itself in a crisis facing the “digital future” that lay ahead[3]. Festivals could be considered as spaces or sites where these institutions of cinema and institutions of the gallery come together, incorporating presentation modes in both black box and white cube spaces[4] and utilizing both types of spaces with regular projections in cinemas, but also installations, video art, performances and projections in a white cube exhibition mode. The International Film Festival Rotterdam for example, which I will use as my main point of reference here, three cinemas in Rotterdam are used for film projection, but there are often also collaborations with museums and art institutions, such as V2 and Witte de With Centre for Contemporary Art in 2015.

Sometimes the tension between these two types of presentation modes can also serve to present works within a different context than they were “initiated”, by presenting black box works in a white cube space or the other way around, but at the same time, festivals also offer the extra possibility of finding ways of presenting works outside of these boundaries as well, for example through black box/white cube exhibition space in a building that not had that purpose before. This was done for example also at IFFR 2015, with Sarah Vanagt’s installation In Waking Hours (1632 – 1852 – 1978) at Mauritsweg 40, which was an empty house up for sale in the centre of Rotterdam. This building never had the “purpose” of being a gallery space, but with this installation (consisting of three works) presented on multiple floors of the house, did temporarily become one and worked very well together with the works, as they reflected on human perception in historical domestic settings.


Another way of doing so is working with sites of the festival that are already part of it. At IFFR 2015 for example a thematic programme about duration, sleep and global capitalism titled 24/7, consisting of 30 installations, performances and several short film programmes, took place mostly in hotels. Hotels are already tied to the festival, as the festival needs to accommodate their thousands of international guests, and now also became a “visible” part of the festival through the use of their rooms for screening short film compilations, presenting installations and hosting performances. Also the lobby and hallways were used to present works, such as Martin John Callanan’s Departure of All, which is a screen of real time departure flights from all over the world, and integrated very well in the space of the hotel lobby.

Though in these examples perhaps aspects of the black box/white cube models are still invoked, by sometimes darkening the space, providing benches to sit on and in case of paintings and projection, having a white wall to project or hang the work on, there is also another layer at play, which is the site-specific and ephemeral or temporal aspects of these spaces that adds to ‘other’ or new ways of experiencing moving images: lying on the bed in a hotel room to watch a film within the framework of a festival is an intimate experience and one that makes you unsure of the codes of conduct, very different from the gallery or the cinema. Festivals therefore are not only sites for innovation by presenting innovative films and video works in a black box or white cube setting, but can also be considered sites of experimentation on a level of film exhibition: the ephemeral or temporal nature of festivals allows for this experimentation and the very nature of festivals themselves, rushing through the city from one film to the next, already allows for a different experience of moving images in itself: the way visitors use spaces throughout the city and which “routes” they take is different and therefore interesting to consider in curating. In turn, considering festivals as a site for curatorial experimentation can also invoke new ways to think about presenting moving images within cinemas, film institutions and gallery spaces as well and is therefore an interesting phenomenon to consider in relation to curating, film experience and modes of exhibition, requiring much further research in the future.

[1] As she states in her article “In Rotterdam, popular terms are “authentic, personal voice, talent, auteur, innovative, original,l topical, urgent and local roots” and “the festival focuses on first and second feature filmmakers for its Tiger Award Competition and its othe flagship programme, called “Bright Future” has a taste fort he “idosyncratic, strong-willed and talented newcomers” (47).

[2] As Erika Balsom argues in the introduction of her book, artists in the 1990s have claimed “the gallery space as a space to investigate film history” (Balsom, 10) and this ‘explosion’ of moving images in contemporary art “constitutes a primary site at which notions of cinema have been renegotiated and redefined in recent decades” (11).

[3] She explains: “For many video artists, the cinema had long been primarily understood as a great exemplar of the mindlessness of the culture industries, something to be refused and dismantled”. In the 1990s this changed, as many artists “adopted a markedly different attitude towards it than many of their forebears. As new, synthetic images foretold a digital future in which the hegemonic position of cinema would be definitely compromised, spaces of intervention opened up to reevaluate what cinema once was” (Balsom, 180).

[4] For further reference, Brian O’Doherty writes about the white cube and the black box in his article “Notes on the Gallery Space” from the book Inside the White Cube. The Ideology of the Gallery.



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