The Light Museum – Film & Performance in The Tanks

“Artists have used the camera, the screen, and the space in between” – Stuart Comer, Film Curator at Tate Modern.

In his edited collection on Film and Video Art, the Tate Modern’s film curator Stuart Comer notes that:

Experiments in film and video have encouraged significant shifts in our understanding of the intricate relations between images, perception, authorship, time, space and our own corporeal [physical] presence as viewers.

Film and video art figure heavily in The Tanks programme and it is important to acknowledge the role they have in shaping the space and people’s experience of it. Film and video art encompass and reference cinema, performance, gallery, television and the internet, whilst simultaneously dissolving the boundaries between these divergent practices. Comer reckons that

artists have used the projected image as a mirror, a weapon, an analytical tool and a mise en abyme in which the virtual and the real unfold into one another with increasing complexity.

A mise en abyme is a way of describing the visual experience of standing between two mirrors with the images in each recurring infinitely. It lends itself as a formal technique in art where an image recurrently contains a smaller copy of itself. Perhaps this is the most apt articulation of the potential of The Tanks: The Tanks as mise en abyme: an abyss of light and image recurring infinitesimally.

Body montage by Carolee Schneemann

“it is the purpose of the tanks to present art works that deal primarily with space and activity.”

The Tanks programme is an amalgamation of performance, choreography and film – what could be more cinematic? The fifteen week programme, which runs between 18th July and 28th October 2012, has been orchestrated by Kathy Noble, Catherine Wood, Stuart Comer and Emily Pringle. The Tanks, or the “museum of the twenty-first century,” has been devised as a place for contemplation, spectacle and interaction in equal measure. Kathy Noble states that The Tanks “will show how contemporary art practice has evolved since the 1950s – particularly in areas such as performance, film and works that involve active social relations.” An emphasis on space emerged in the 1960s promoting a more physical relation with art, and contemporary artwork often encourages reciprocity and even participation. So it seems now that art must be activated to be experienced, and it is the purpose of the tanks to present art works that deal primarily with space and activity.

Typically, ‘non-object’ forms of artwork (like performance, film and choreography) are difficult to exhibit in museums because they aren’t stable, unlike paintings or sculptures. Performance art (including film and choreography) has a rich but obscured history, partly because of the difficulty curators face in presenting these works. Galleries and museums are about passive viewing, about preserving things, petrifying them – they are the antithesis of the live event – and The Tate is no different. And yet The Tanks differs from a traditional gallery/museum because it is about encountering art, not looking at it. The Tanks is about changing how people behave in a museum and it is about artists and artworks that both develop and shape that change.

Images from the work of Joan Jonas

“The darkness and shape of The Tanks perhaps lends itself most readily to the projection of light and that’s why, for me, the film programme is the most exciting aspect of The Tanks season.”

Ideas raised about the end of analogue film by Tacita Dean in her Turbine Hall commission at The Tate (considered by R|Rhere) are being followed up in Stuart Comers’ film programme at The Tanks, which will also examine the histories of expanded cinema and filmmaking practice. The programme Filmaktion, running between the 16th – 21st October, celebrates the work of British artists Malcolm Le Grice and Annabel Nicolson, who first performed in the 1970s at The Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. Le Grice and Nicolson dealt with projection itself as a form of art – as a form of performance – using their bodies to interrupt the flow of light as it shuttles from the projector to the screen. In traditional cinema the projector is hidden, forgotten. But in the field of interdisciplinary art, the projector is a paintbrush.

The darkness and shape of The Tanks perhaps lends itself most readily to the projection of light and that’s why, for me, the film programme is the most exciting aspect of The Tanks season. A central fixture in The Tanks space is Lis Rhodes’ installation Light Music, in which the projector – the apparatus of cinema – takes centre stage. According to Lucy Reynolds, Light Music “offers evidence of a new mode of cinematic projection experience, also termed ‘expanded cinema’.”  Rhodes was a pioneer of ‘expanded cinema’ – a term first coined by underground filmmaker Stan VanDerBeek that encompasses a wide range of practices. What united ‘expanded cinema’ practitioners was the desire to encourage an active, participatory relationship between the viewer and their film experience.

Malcolm Le Grice – Filmaktion

“Galleries and museums are about passive viewing, about preserving things, petrifying them – they are the antithesis of the live event – and The Tate is no different”

Work like this – events, happenings, performances, whatever you want to call them – reimagined art practice outside of the gallery. In this context Reynolds believes that:

Film projection now acts as a potent reminder that cinema is a live experience of the present moment, in which the beam of light becomes the crucial point of convergence between the mechanics of the projector and the process unfolding in the space and time experienced by the viewer, rather than an on-screen protagonist.

Filmmaking artists like Lis Rhodes and Malcolm Le Grice positioned themselves in opposition to commercial narrative-driven filmmaking, which they believed lulled the audience into passivity. In their view, during a conventional movie-watching experience the audience are not encouraged to be alive to the mechanics and magic of the film form itself. So, by removing narrative action and incorporating the cinematic apparatus within the artwork, the ‘cinematic condition’ may be explored. Their work transformed the experience of cinema and in practice Rhodes, Le Grice, Nicolson and the associated artists of the London Filmmakers Co-op were distilling the fundamentals of cinema. It seems apt then that Rhodes’ piece will form such a central part of The Tanks with Light Music running throughout the fifteen week programme.

Projection that is concerned with space becomes closer to sculpture than cinema, and film in this context becomes an installation. In her book Installation Art: A Critical History, Claire Bishop identifies ‘installation art’ as “a term that loosely refers to the type of art into which the viewer physically enters and which is often described as ‘theatrical,’ ‘immersive’ or ‘experiential’.” The Tanks is a space for installation art par excellence. Celebrating and remembering the Filmaktion events at the Walker Art Gallery is an essential component of The Tanks programme, bringing attention to the work of British artists like the aforementioned Malcolm Le Grice, but also his compatriot Gill Eatherley, who focused keenly on the relationship between projection and sculpture revelling in the potential of film installation. This image is from her Chair Installation (1973). Now almost 40 years ago, it shows how a physical object such as a chair can be incorporated into filmmaking / exhibiting practice.

Gill Eatherly

“Projection that is concerned with space becomes closer to sculpture than cinema, and film in this context becomes an installation.”

And finally the late Jeff Keen, a Brighton based film-performer, has also been gifted a programme. His work will be celebrated from the 18th – 23rd September. Keen was an experimental filmmaker, artist and poet. He used highly innovative techniques of superimposition and editing, and frequently etched and degraded the film surface. Works such as Marvo Movie (1967), Rayday Film (1968-75) and Mad Love (1972-78) were shot with his friends and family either at home or on the streets of Brighton. Keen fused performance with filmmaking and pioneered forms of ‘expanded cinema’ in the UK.

Jeff Keen

Is The Tanks a museum of light? Action art, expanded cinema, performance, film and video are all time-based – live. They are forms that try to capture and hold something that is essentially ephemeral. They cannot exist in a solid state. The Tanks is not a traditional museum; The Tanks is a container in which certain things will happen and certain things will be illuminated, if only for a moment.



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