Issue 10.3 | Summer 2012 / Guest edited by Jonathan Beller

Curating “Physical Cinema” at Sundance’s New Frontier

Miwa Matreyek - Myth and Infrastructure

Miwa Matreyek, Myth and Infrastructure (2010). Photo by Scott Groller.

Curatorial practices around film, video, and new media technology carry the potential to repossess and radicalize the heart of cinema. This article posits New Frontier, a program of the Sundance Film Festival, as one manifestation of contemporary feminist curatorial and artist work redefining the terms of our engagement with cinematic technologies and storytelling practices. Senior film programmer and curator Shari Frilot’s strategies for conceptualizing and organizing New Frontier around a notion of “physical cinema” move audiences to recognize, locate, and activate their bodies within a generative dynamic to cinematic production, distribution, and exhibition—facilitating the conditions within which artists, scholars, filmmakers, media scientists, and organizers might forge other ways of loving cinema.

Degenerating Cinema

Susan Sontag’s infamous 1996 New York Times article, “The Decay of Cinema,” is commonly read as an obituary, a proclamation of the death of cinema and cinephilia. Based in the “desire to lose yourself in other people’s lives,” Sontag longs for a cinema culture that delivers “the experience of surrender to, of being transported by, what was on the screen.” She elaborates:

You wanted to be kidnapped by the movie—and to be kidnapped was to be overwhelmed by the physical presence of the image. The experience of “going to the movies” was part of it. … To be kidnapped, you have to be in a movie theater, seated in the dark among anonymous strangers.[1]

This escapist, immersive approach to cinema was perpetuated through the emergence of film festivals in the United States during the escalating Cold War. Festivals not only conferred glamour and sophistication onto the film experience, but also played a formative role in validating film as an art form.[2]

What needs to still be explored by scholars is how the development of film culture and the emergence of film festivals were informed by the sociopolitical contexts of the 1950s and 1960s, which marked daily life for communities of color with racial discrimination, violence, and organized resistance as part of civil rights and national liberation struggles.[3] This research–and how it entangles with the question of what white, middle-class, movie-going audiences have been escaping–is beyond the scope of this article. Following feminist theories of spectatorship and the gaze, it is important to note how viewing practices structured around willingly losing oneself are predicated upon mustering sufficient identification with the story and characters in order to want to be kidnapped by a film. Rather than suggesting modes of engagement with cinema are simply relative to different audiences or must find universally desiring spectators, I am curious to pursue how cinema’s production, exhibition, distribution, and love are mediated by social, economic, and political systems that sustain structures of violence and oppression against communities of historically disenfranchised and dispossessed people.[4]

Sontag laments that film practices have disintegrated so completely that any films worthy of love would “have to be actual violations of the norms and practices that now govern movie making everywhere in the capitalist and would-be capitalist world.”[5] But in what ways have the economic systems to which Sontag attributes cinema’s decay also underwritten the very terms of the cinephilia and cinema she mourns? Drawing on Marx’s labor theory of value, Jonathan Beller compellingly argues that perception and looking have been made into value-productive labor through the cinematization and industrialization of the visual. Beller positions film as a “social relation that separates the visual component of human subjective activity from the body in its immediate environment” and cinema as “the systemic organization of this productive separation.”[6] As a result of capital accumulation, Beller argues, the visual has transformed “from a zone of unalienated creative practice to one of alienated labor.”[7] It can be argued that this transformation found its way through the intimate pleasures derived from immersive, escapist modes of engaging cinema—modes initially facilitated through technological advances consolidating cinema into a standardized experience in the early twentieth century, and in the contemporary moment through the accelerated individualization of viewing formats.

Cinema has neither always been a commodity nor has it always run on a seamless narrative designed to lose oneself within. The experience of going to the cinema before the turn of the twentieth century, as film historian Charles Musser recounts, entailed the presentation of short, disparate cinematic sequences shaped into a program by the exhibitor. When film became recognized as a profitable commercial enterprise, the medium of film was consolidated into a linear, narrative structure that could be uniformly experienced. In the early 1910s, this displaced both multiple-reel, short-film exhibition formats and the role of the exhibitor as the cinematic arbiter between the film and the audience.[8] Audiences also needed to be consolidated in order for this new model to generate extensive profits. Working-class and immigrant audiences of the nickelodeons were quickly forsaken in order to meet the increasing expenses of extravagant movie palaces that sought programming suitable for the “tender sensibilities” of white, middle-class women.[9] The creation of a primarily white, upper-class clientele was further built on racial differences—the absence of black audiences (often explicitly stated in the theaters’ advertising) became a signifier of the exclusive and elite experiences of movie-going.[10]

The commodification enabled through the advent of narrative, feature-length film exhibition formats was first exemplified in the unprecedented mass circulation of Birth of a Nation. As Cedric Robinson has compellingly argued, Griffith’s film “counterfeited history” to solidify fixed notions of race and white superiority into the fabric of American national identity.[11] Birth of a Nation also established financial motivations for the production and distribution of films that valorized whiteness and reinforced oppressive “aesthetic contracts.”[12] The film fanned the racial fantasies amongst white-invested audiences, instigating a resurgence of violent movements and organizations. The film has since been canonized as the inaugural marker of American independent film.[13]

This article explores how a rekindling of the exhibitor’s role might disrupt the commercial misdeeds that have grown out of independent film culture and compel a re-envisioning of our relationship to the moving image and cinema.


New Frontier and “Physical Cinema”

Established in 2007 as an experiment in the exhibition of digital art works, media installations, and multimedia performance, New Frontier was designed within a deliberately social setting that fosters collaboration and exchange, and has been curated to bring together artists, filmmakers, and media scientists who are innovating models for cinematic storytelling. Set in the snowy, ski resort town of Park City, Utah, New Frontier is an initiative of the Sundance Film Festival, one of the most prestigious and value-producing film festivals in the United States. Unlike the situation in many countries that have national film funds or boards, the United States’ federal government’s lack of infrastructural support for independent filmmaking has positioned Sundance as a primary institution for the development, exhibition, and discovery of American independent film. During Geoffrey Gilmore’s twenty-year tenure as festival director, Sundance became a mechanism for turning independent films into profitable, commercially viable commodities.[14] By 2000, the festival was inextricably implicated in the sedimentation of American independent film into what has been called “indiewood,” a simultaneously derogatory and celebratory reference to the development of the field and its replication of Hollywood’s business patterns.[15] Like other influential international film festivals, Sundance has offered a platform for filmmakers not only to exhibit their films, but also to connect with industry professionals who have the necessary resources to distribute current films and finance future projects. Scholars in the emerging field of film festival studies have detailed how market pressures weigh heavily on the kinds of relationships audiences have with the films exhibited at festivals. [16]

In the context of Sundance and the commodification of independent film, New Frontier’s installations between 2007 and 2011 can readily be seen and experienced as wrinkles in the film festival experience. Senior programmer and curator Shari Frilot locates the motivation for founding New Frontier in a need to reappropriate screen culture, new media technologies, and cinema toward the nourishment of alternate modes of engaging cinema:

When we walk around, screens follow our bodies. Screens are in our pockets and bags. As we move through buildings and terrains, surveillance systems track us. We watch cabs drive by with TV screens. Subways are plastered with screens. You could say that we live inside of a media installation. But you can’t really call it that because it is not for art’s sake; it is mainly for commerce’s sake. I want to reclaim this environment for art.[17]

In the exhibition’s 2010 edition, Frilot described how the pervasiveness of moving-image technology in everyday life has created an “electroskeleton,” an electronically engineered dimension that encrusts our bodies and “structures our modern lifestyle, affecting our ethics and decision-making.”[18] New Frontier seeks to resist the occupation of the cultural domain by commercial forces, transforming the conditions within which we engage the cinematic.

Actively refiguring the mode of engagement between audiences and film, Frilot describes her approach to New Frontier as an expansion of audience expectations around what Sundance has traditionally offered: American independent film. Unlike the “white cube” exhibition format traditionally found in the museum and art worlds or the “black box” exhibition format of the conventional theater, with New Frontier’s format it is deliberately not clear what, in which order, or how one is supposed to look at New Frontier. Frilot enthusiastically notes: “All those rules are gone at New Frontier. There’s no knowing anything there.”[19] The location and design of the New Frontier exhibition prompts a productive disorientation that is distinct from other venues at Sundance which instead depend on film industry professionals (i.e., journalists, distributors, producers, and agents, among others) to efficiently organize themselves in order to successfully evaluate the financial and cultural worth of as many films as possible within the limited time frame of the festival.[20]

Frilot characterizes the curatorial methodology that underpins New Frontier as “physical cinema,” a framing of the cinematic that calls upon the body to dynamically participate in the process of making meaning from the work. These curatorial experiments aim to “strategically trigger sensual registers” and appeal to audiences through the body, rather than isolating the visual. The sensorial elements of the exhibition design foster a space where audiences can be vulnerable. Frilot describes how by “physically seducing [audiences] with soft couches, low lighting, and sexy music,” she hopes viewers will “not feel intimidated if they stumble around with their words.” As Frilot explains, “for example, it’s ok to stumble around with your words in a bar—in fact, it’s encouraged. People have really illuminated discussions in bars because of that.”[21] The evocation of a bar’s atmosphere speaks to the attention Frilot places on how physical spaces and social contexts shape the conditions and terms in which people are able to engage with one another, and the implications for this on how audiences might relate to artistic works.

Vivian Sobchack’s work on embodiment and the sense made through our bodies—our “carnal existence”—offers further insight into Frilot’s curatorial practice. Sobchack describes our sense of self in the world as not only mediated and represented, but actually constituted through photographic, cinematic, and electronic technologies:[22]

As cinesthetic subjects … we possess an embodied intelligence that opens our eyes far beyond their discrete capacity for vision, opens the film far beyond it visible containment by the screen, and opens language to a reflective knowledge of its carnal origins and limits.[23]

Physical cinema as a curatorial methodology calls on this embodied intelligence to eclipse approaches to cinema that rely primarily on textual readings, aesthetic valuations, individual preferences, or commercial assessments. New Frontier offers a kind of cinematic intelligibility that locates the body’s position and implicates its physicality as a response to rapidly changing screen cultures and digital landscapes. This is distinct from the physicality of being moved in one’s gut while watching a powerful film. Frilot explains that with physical cinema, “your body is moving within the context of the work, completing the story with the information that the body has. The body’s movement is consummating the work, and calls the body to react in different ways.”

By calling on our bodies to be part of the cinematic experience, we actively generate meaning through our interactions with the screen. In other words, curating physical cinema requires the audience to move in order to be moved.

But move toward what? While some of the projects exhibited at New Frontier are notable for their formal technological innovations, a great number of the works curated carry provocations bent on social, environmental, and economic justice.[24] As part of the legacy of black radical feminist work, Frilot’s curatorial approach to cinema locates agency and the potential to disrupt dominant narratives of temporality and spatiality within the sensual, emotive, and erotic registers of knowledge. In a talk at the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for New Media, Frilot described how the development and evolution of her curatorial strategies drew on poet-warrior Audre Lorde’s theorization of the erotic.[25] In her essay, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” Lorde describes how the erotic is “firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed and unrecognized feeling” and must be recognized as an invaluable mode of knowing that “rises from our deepest and nonrational knowledge.”[26] Lorde reclaims the erotic from its confused degeneration into “the trivial, the psychotic, the plasticized sensation,” analogous to pornography, which she asserts is, “a direct denial of the power of the erotic,” because it suppresses feeling to aggrandize sensation alone.[27] Frilot takes up Lorde’s theorization of the erotic to generate critical paths for curatorial practices that navigate questions of aesthetics, difference, spectatorship, and value.


Feminist Possibilities of Physical Cinema

Physical cinema as a curatorial practice—and its implications for feminist work—can be recognized in four pieces curated for New Frontier. In January 2011, American animator Miwa Matreyek gave two performances at New Frontier: Dreaming of Lucid Living and Myth and Infrastructure. The performances consisted of a screen with front and rear projection with the shadow and silhouette of her body moving through animated dense cityscapes, primal fantastical realms, natural environments, and domestic spaces. Inspired by collaborations with Chi-wang Yang and Anna Oxygen, fellow members of the multimedia group Cloud Eye Control, Matreyek’s interdisciplinary practice experiments with emerging technologies and brings together media of performance, animation, theater, video installation, sculpture, dance, and music. Matreyek integrates strategically overlapping projections of her own animation with precisely choreographed movement of her body, effectively juxtaposing what she refers to as “illusion and nonillusion.”[28]

4 minute excerpt of Miwa Matreyek performance, Myth and Infrastructure (2010). Courtesy the artist, copyright the artist.

The work relies on two parallel narratives: the audience’s reckoning of how a “live” body is positioned in relation to the animation and cinematic composition of the projections, and nonlinear animated stories that simultaneously evoke epic tales of the evolution of the human species and offer an oracle of sorts for the future.[29] In one three-minute sequence from Myth and Infrastructure, Matreyek’s silhouette enters the frame, flora spring up with each of her giant steps in a tiny, growing forest. Creation stirs through her fingertips, swirling a starry night sky around her body, framed by a full moon. Her hands call forth water, and she bends down to transform her back into an island in the ocean. Inside her chest, a nestled egg spins like a magical atom, propelling sparks through her throat, and out of her mouth comes a tiny woman. She scoops the woman out of the ocean, placing her onto the island that is her back. Schools of fish and whales swim through and past the shadow of Matreyek’s body—now almost indistinguishable as a “real” body in the rich landscape projected on the front and back of the screen. Pine trees grow tall on the island, until, shortly after the discovery of fire, they burn, birds flee, and deer are killed. A large wave washes over the island; a single survivor remains. Matreyek’s shadow rises up from the ocean—mother of creation—and she faces this tiny, lone woman.

Lorde’s theory of the erotic as “a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feeling” resonates with how Matreyek articulates the distinction between the meaning made from her body’s performance and another’s body.[30]

I am both me and anonymous. If I put someone else in my videos or as a performer, I feel like I have to deal with a lot more about that person’s gender, history, age, appearance, physical presence and movement … and that changes my work … my body is the most direct [route] from imagination to reality.[31]

Bringing the specificity of one’s own body to bear on what and how one knows, the erotic is a crucial part of how Matreyek conceptualizes her artistic work and practice.

Australian artist Lynette Wallworth’s installation piece at the 2009 edition of New Frontier, Evolution of Fearlessness explores the limits of connectivity between the screen and the body through the deliberate acts of gesture and touch. The visitor enters the installation room, completely darkened but for two spots of light. Treading carefully without being able to see what lies ahead, the visitor is beckoned toward the first light at the side of the room. A reading station illuminates written texts documenting the personal experiences and journeys of 11 women currently residing in Australia after seeking asylum as political refugees from Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, and El Salvador. Venturing toward the second light glowing at the far end of the room, the visitor is moved to place their palm against the light in the middle of a full-length video screen. The room illuminates slightly and a figure moves forward from the darkened depths of the frame—she is a filmed portrait of one of the 11 women whose stories the visitor just read. The randomness built into the system is designed so the visitor cannot predict or control which woman they will encounter. As the woman approaches, she looks directly toward the visitor before raising her palm to meet theirs. One imagines they might be touching if it weren’t for the screen. Eyes locked, background black, and no verbal exchange, there is little sense of geography or time. Wallworth’s piece foregrounds the influence of sharing presence and is designed so that each woman indicates she is ready to leave through eye contact before translating it into gesture. Held in a heightened empathetic state, the visitor reads this intention and often releases their hand at the same time as the woman.

Lynette Wallworth - Evolution of Fearlessness

Lynette Wallworth: Evolution of Fearlessness (2006). Photo by Rocco Fasano, image courtesy Forma and the artist.

Wallworth sought to interrupt the fear-mongering political rhetoric used to elicit xenophobic reactions toward people seeking immigration and asylum in Australia in 2008. Wallworth explains: “It’s very difficult to confront these fear tactics once they become mediated, but it’s a very different thing to look someone in the eyes and maintain those prejudices.”[32] The perceptual interface of Evolution of Fearlessness enables a responsive environment that asks for intimacy from the viewer, starting from the darkness of the installation space. As with her other works, Wallworth views “non-threatening (comfortable) darkness as a space where transformation occurs.”[33] This transformation is through the viewer’s physical movement, initiated through a deliberate gesture that manifests in the appearance of a life-sized projection reflective of their own body.

Wallworth’s piece engages with an understanding of the erotic further theorized in Laura Marks’ discussion of haptic visuality. Haptic cinema, Marks writes, “involves thinking with your skin, or giving as much significance of the physical presence of an other as to the mental operations of symbolization.” Marks is careful to distinguish the possibilities of haptic cinema from an approach to cinema that feeds the “desire to lose yourself in other people’s lives” by overwhelming the viewer with the moving image. She writes:

This is not a call to willful regression but to recognizing the intelligence of the perceiving body. Haptic cinema, by appearing to us as an object with which we interact rather than an illusion in which we enter, calls on this sort of embodied intelligence. In the dynamic movement between optical and haptic ways of seeing, it is possible to compare different ways of knowing and interacting with an other.

Marks describes how the erotic is found within haptic visuality, understood “as respect for otherness, and concomitant loss of self in the presence of the other.”[34] Marks names this as “a visual erotics that offers its object to the viewer but only on the condition that its unknowability remain intact, and that the viewer, in coming closer, give up his or her own mastery.”[35]

The work of locating the body’s position is further explored in an installation from the 2011 iteration of New Frontier, All That Is Solid Melts into Air. American artist Mark Boulos juxtaposes two documentary videos that are projected on ten-foot screens on opposite sides of a room to tell a story of oil from two different geopolitical viewpoints. On one side, a video shows vérité footage and interviews with members of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), an organization protecting its members’ land from the extraction of petroleum resources by foreign corporations and the Nigerian government, which further profits from the land’s exploitation. Less than a few feet away, a video on the other side portrays stock traders frantically speculating on energy futures at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in the beginning of the credit crisis.

Mark Boulos - All That Is Solid Melts into Air

Mark Boulos: All That Is Solid Melts into Air (2008), installation view. Courtesy the artist, copyright the artist.

Neither video occupies its own space and time, where it might receive undivided attention from the viewer. Rather than screening both videos side by side on different monitors or on a split screen where they might share the viewer’s sightline, Boulos places the screens across from one another so that both videos cannot be watched at once. Physically caught between both screens, the viewers must negotiate how they will divide their attentions between each video and what it represents. By mediating the meaning of both documentaries through the viewer’s position, Boulos not only makes the viewer a third-party witness to these two stories of oil, but also an accomplice.

The images of the stock traders are for the most part smaller than life-size, while the interviews with guerrilla fighters are at closer range and larger. While Boulos physically places the viewer in the middle of both stories, the piece refuses any promise of impartiality. The viewer is pulled in by the direct address of the MEND members, in contrast with the diverted gazes and hectic flurry of stock traders jumping up and down to sell and buy financial products. The viewer’s decision of who to listen to, what position to take, and with whom to rest his or her sympathies is coerced through the piece’s production and exhibition. Boulos’s filmmaking choices, and the title’s reference, plainly reveal that his investments and alliances rest with MEND.

Single-channel view of Mark Boulos’s installation, All That Is Solid Melts into Air (2008). Courtesy the artist, copyright the artist.

Describing himself as a Marxist filmmaker sympathetic to revolutionary movements and resistance, Boulos is critical of “liberal human rights journalism, which sympathizes with third world people as long as they remain victims, and at best, victims of themselves.”[36] Based in filmmaking methods that challenge the use of documentary as an unbiased journalistic form of truth telling, and that constantly test “the limits of my own beliefs as well,” Boulos considers his work “as much about challenging my own ideas and seeing what I honestly believe, as it is about planning a film.”[37] In her theorization of the erotic, Lorde emphasizes the importance of recognizing one’s own position and how this is shaped by and informs one’s personal affiliations and alliances.[38]

The fourth piece that provides insight into New Frontier’s investments is RAW/WAR, a transmedia project by American film director and artist Lynn Hershman Leeson (Conceiving Ada [1997], Teknolust [2002], Strange Culture [2007]) that explicitly addresses the gaps in feminist art histories.[39] RAW/WAR was developed in conjunction with Leeson’s feature-length documentary film, !Women Art Revolution (2010), which traces the emergence of a 1960s feminist art movement in the United States that was founded as a response to the exclusion of female artists from museum collections, exhibitions, art journals, and the archive. The documentary draws from Leeson’s personal perspective as an activist and artist, and includes interviews with feminist artists, curators, activists, and scholars alongside rarely seen archival film and video footage.

RAWWAR

RAWWAR. Photo by Miaken Christensen, photos are courtesy of Lynn Hershman Leeson.

RAW/WAR is an online, community-curated initiative that connects feminist artists globally, and is sustained by people uploading their contributions to feminist art histories, including documentation of art works and performances, interviews, archival footage, and transcripts. Illuminating the things lost and left behind by the “edit” in documentaries, museum collections, history textbooks, and art journals, RAW/WAR makes available full-length interviews, transcripts, and performances in their entirety so new histories can be told collaboratively through the use of digital and social-networking technologies. The interactive exhibition of RAW/WAR at New Frontier presented the opportunity to navigate the interface of the video archive, including more than 260 contemporary female artists and 430 works online, including films by Yvonne Rainer, Yayoi Kusama, Dara Birnbaum, Martha Rosler, Rebecca Horn, and Trinh Minh ha. The deliberately social atmosphere of New Frontier encouraged individual and collective engagements with these archives on a large screen. Participants used virtual flashlights to serendipitously excavate and explore the unknowns of the archive, scrolling through the site’s organizational filters, categorized by decades from the 1960s through the present under five subject headings: “body politic,” “consciousness raising,” “social protest,” “identity,” and “media.” Interrupting practices of erasures, RAW/WAR reclaims authorship and access by engaging in a liberatory model for narrating multiple histories of social, political, and artistic movements.


Frilot’s Curatorial Work as Artistic Practice

This discussion of New Frontier is important to briefly contextualize within the broader continuum of Frilot’s artistic practice. Drawing on an educational background in engineering, Frilot’s artistic practice began with two-dimensional collages, and developed using video technologies from the mid-to-late 1980s to create an expansive notion of space in her representational practice. Her twenty-minute video piece, A Cosmic Demonstration of Sexuality (1992) is one element in a larger project—a collage of the planets in our solar system, with the video itself moving through the Earth position. When she took the directorial reins of the New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film Festival from cofounders Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard in 1994, Frilot sought to “mix up” the reliance of identity-based festivals on a programming strategy that segregated films and audiences based on identity. Renaming the festival MIX, Frilot sought to unsettle the film festival paradigm and “re-mix the dialogue about programming to re-imagine a film festival on the gay circuit that engaged with race, class, and sexuality in a different way.”[40] Frilot reorganized the festival’s physical spaces to disrupt the framing of experimental, gay, lesbian, and film as stable concepts. The festival moved from its exhibition venue at the Anthology Film Archives, an East Village base for avant-garde film since the early 1970s, to The Kitchen, a Chelsea-based performance space/gallery.[41]

Mix Festival 1994 cover

Cover of the 1994 Catalog for the MIX: 8th New York Lesbian & Gay
Experimental Film/Video Festival. Designed by Reyes Meléndez in collaboration with Director of Programming Shari Frilot.

Frilot’s approach to “experimental” was not in terms of the content or form of the film/video itself, but in the approach to the work’s exhibition. Perhaps one of the most infamous programs in MIX’s 30-year history was The 1,000 Dreams of Desire, a screening of 80 films and videos guest-curated by Jim Lyons and Christine Vachon, and installed on the monitors of peep-show booths and various rooms of projection at the three-story porn palace Ann Street Bookstore, notoriously frequented by an investment banker class of white men. Frilot recalls:

I don’t think women had ever even been in that space. It was pretty gross. We went in and washed it all down, burned a lot of incense to make it smell good and then reprogrammed the entire space with gay experimental film.[42]

Frilot also oversaw the development of different models for exhibiting and engaging with films throughout the festival, including the Go!Go!SPOT, a “pre/after show playground featuring [a] café, bar, music, and interactive installations in a leisure lounge setting;”[43] and the Video Gong Show, an event in which any artist could submit their films and videos to be screened in a bar with audiences cheering to indicate their likes/dislikes to a panel of “celebrity judge drag queens.”[44]

Guest curators from diverse communities were invited to participate in MIX’s programming, and the festival collaborated with television centers and local event organizers connected with communities of queer artists of color. Frilot’s strategies for expanding the terms of gay and lesbian festivals, experimental film, the physical exhibition space of the festival, and the audiences interpolated into the festival culminated in the production of Victoria MIX, “the first queer film festival ever to take place in Harlem.”[45]

As the director of programming at Outfest (1998-2002), which like other identity-based GLBT festivals has often taken an increasingly conservative and homogenous approach to “gay and lesbian” films and audiences, Frilot initiated Platinum Oasis, an all-night, one-time performance and installation exhibition, with performance artists Ron Athey and Ms. Vaginal Davis as the king and queen of the event. Held at the Coral Sands, a “crack-fisting motel” in Los Angeles, each of the different rooms in the motel presented some kind of performance; an artist created “set,” or an installation that would call in visitors to participate physically. Frilot describes her motivations and how they informed the curatorial philosophy:

I wanted to go back to what queer was—how fabulous and wrong and edgy and how dangerous it was … [Platinum Oasis] lasted from the afternoon, and went overnight into the next morning—setting up a landscape for devious curiosity with no bounds. We wanted to create this environment, even if it was just for a little moment, where there was … a cornucopia of exploration and adventure alongside sexuality and art.[46]

These explorations in exhibition strategies to captivate audiences around art on an erotic, bodily level are central to Frilot’s approach to New Frontier and her curatorial experiment in physical cinema.

Frilot’s experimentation with exhibition and curatorial strategies to captivate audiences on an erotic, bodily level opens the possibility to refigure racial, sexual, and gendered subjectivities beyond fixed categories of identity. This work continues to inform and animate Frilot’s curatorial practice and her engagement with “physical cinema” at New Frontier. Recognizing the curator’s role as literally making a place for bodies’ engagements with the moving image, how might curatorial practice itself be taken up as an object of study by film scholars? If the objects we study shape our theories, and the theories we use frame our objects, what kinds of ways of knowing and experiencing the cinematic are produced through curatorial engagements with and interventions into the moving image? How can we think of curatorial practices as intricately tied up with formal filmmaking strategies, critical textual readings of films, and modes of spectatorship?

Conclusion: Finding the Body, An Other Kind of Love

This essay considers the way Shari Frilot’s curatorial strategies for New Frontier, during its exhibitions between 2007 and 2011, have incited embodied, participatory relationships that reframe linear relationships between the spectator and screen, and generate new dynamics that require people’s collective presence to experience cinema. Within a contemporary landscape of expanding (and collapsing) capitalist systems that employ the moving image to eat away at our bodies, feminist artistic and curatorial interventions are urgently needed to reframe the terms of our engagement with screen, new media, and digital cultures. Further, research and scholarship on the curatorial and exhibition practices around film are critical for exploring how desires are both informed by and formative of repressive cinematic apparatuses, and providing different models for mediating cinema that allow for a more capacious, and coalitional film culture. In the acts of the body finding (rather than losing) itself and making its place in the world visible, audiences, curators, filmmakers, and film lovers might mediate an other kind of love around the possibilities of the cinematic, “the poetic and mysterious and erotic and moral.”[47]

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Footnotes
  1. Susan Sontag, “The Decay of Cinema,” New York Times Magazine, 25. Feb. 1996. [Return to text]
  2. When the San Francisco International Film Festival was founded in 1958, many critics, among them Pauline Kael, faulted the festival for making cinema secondary to the lavish parties and socialite events. In New York, It wasn’t until the second year after the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts was founded that film was recognized as a valid art form through the establishment of the New York Film Festival in 1963. For more on how perceptions of film as an art form shifted for a general public in the 1950s and 1960s, see Shyon Baumann, “Intellectualization and Art World Development: Film in the United States,” American Sociological Review 66:3 (2001): 404-426. [Return to text]
  3. Kara Keeling’s groundbreaking text The Witch’s Flight: The Cinematic, the Black Femme, and the Image of Common Sense offers a rigorous theoretical foundation for this line of inquiry. (Duke University Press, 2007). [Return to text]
  4. Consider Grace Elizabeth Hale’s discussion of “spectacle lynching” and the role of circulating photographs of lynchings in the earlier part of the twentieth century in order to publicly intimidate and perpetuate fear within black communities. See Grace Elizabeth Hale, “Spectacle of Lynchings and the Contradictions of Segregation as Culture,” Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South (1890-1940) (New York: Vintage Press, 1999). Focusing on the femicides in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Rosa Linda Fregoso investigates how cultural representations “construct meaningful narratives” within transnational feminist frameworks through her analysis of Performing the Border (Ursula Blenmenn, 1999) and Maquila: A Tale of Two Mexicos (Saul, Landua, Sonia Angulo). Fregoso demonstrates that despite their intentions to bring light to the injustices of the femicides, these films function to either indirectly place the responsibility for the murders on the women themselves (by focusing on their non-normative behaviors), or by constructing the women as passive victims to be saved by interventions of Western human-rights or media-advocacy frameworks. See MeXicana Encounters: The Making of Social Identities on the Borderlands (Berkeley: U of C Press, 2003). See also bell hooks, “Revolutionary Attitude,” Black Looks: Race and Representation (Cambridge,: South End Press, 1999). [Return to text]
  5. Sontag 1996. Almost a decade later, film critic Mahnola Dargis finds the vibrancy of contemporary cinephilia precisely in these increasingly consumer-based modes of obtaining, watching, and discussing cinema. Dargis’s celebratory description of a consumer-based cinephilia indicates the entrenched extent to which the market not only delineates the terms of our engagement with cinema, but also actively feeds it by gorging audiences with choice. Dargis writes: “Today, movie love means buying DVD’s online, joining virtual communities on the Web and filling seats at regional film festivals … DVD’s are increasingly driving entertainment-industry profits and cluttering home-entertainment rooms. Yet they have also helped create a new cinema culture that defies the industry’s imperative to homogeneity, and in the process, they have helped revitalize the relationship between film and its lovers. Consumers have more choices than ever; so do cinephiles.” “The 21st-Century Cinephile,” New York Times, 14 Nov. 2004. [Return to text]
  6. Jonathan Beller, The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle (Hanover: Dartmouth College Press, 2006), 22. [Return to text]
  7. Ibid., 7-8. [Return to text]
  8. Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907 (Berkeley: U of California P, 1990) 272-3; 375; 438-9; 492-5. [Return to text]
  9. Russell Merritt, “The Nickelodeon Theatre, 1905-1914: Building an Audience for the Movies,” Exhibition: The Film Reader, ed. Ina Rae Stark (London: Routledge, 2002), 25. [Return to text]
  10. Gregory Waller, “Another Audience: Black Moviegoing from 1907 to 1916,” Exhibition: The Film Reader 2002: 35. [Return to text]
  11. Cedric Robinson, “In the Year 1915: D.W. Griffith and the Rewhitening of America,” Forgeries of Memory and Meaning: Blacks and the Regimes of Race in American Theater and Film before World War II (Durham,: U of North Carolina P, 2007). [Return to text]
  12. See Clyde R. Taylor, “The Rebirth of the Aesthetic in Cinema,” The Mask of Art: Breaking the Aesthetic Contract—Film and Literature (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1998). [Return to text]
  13. See Philip Dray, “Writing History with Lightning,” At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America (New York: Modern Library, 2003). [Return to text]
  14. For a journalistic account of Sundance’s involvement in the commercialization of American independent film, see: Peter Biskind, Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004). [Return to text]
  15. For further reading on the development of indiewood, see: Geoff King, Indiewood, U.S.A.: Where Hollywood meets Independent Cinema (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009). [Return to text]
  16. See: Marijke de Valck, “Cannes and the ‘Alternative’ Cinema Network: Bridging the Gap between Cultural Criteria and Business Demands,” Film Festivals: From European Geopolitics to Global Cinephilia (Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 2007), 85-122; Janet Harbord, “Film Festivals: Media Events and Spaces of Flow,” Film Cultures (London: Sage, 2002), 59-75. [Return to text]
  17. Ibid. [Return to text]
  18. “New Frontier Sneak Peek: The Liberated Pixel,” (PDF) Sundance Film Festival press release, 16 Oct. 2010, accessed 27 Oct 2011. [Return to text]
  19. Shari M. Frilot. Interview by the author. New York, NY, June 16, 2009. [Return to text]
  20. For the first three years, New Frontier took place in the basement level of the Main Street shopping mall, located across from the historic Egyptian Theatre. The fourth year took place in three adjacent buildings of the nonoperational Miner’s Hospital, and in 2012, New Frontier will take place in a former lumber-yard building renovated into an event space and restaurant. [Return to text]
  21. Frilot 2009. [Return to text]
  22. Vivian Sobchack, “The Scene of the Screen: Envisioning Photographic, Cinematic, and Electronic ‘Presence,’” Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley: U of California P, 2004) 135-162. [Return to text]
  23. Sobchack 2004: 84. [Return to text]
  24. Including work by Paul Chan, Matthew Moore, Shirin Neshat, Sam Green, Omar Fast, Martha Colburn, Hassan Elahi, Petko Dourmana, The Bruce High Quality Foundation, Nao Bustamante, and Travis Wilkerson, to name a few. [Return to text]
  25. Shari Frilot, “The Power of the Erotic: Curatorial Strategies at Sundance’s New Frontier,” Presentation at the Art, Technology, and Culture Colloquium, UC Berkeley, 18 Feb. 2010. [Return to text]
  26. Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Trumansburg: Crossing Press, 1984) 53. [Return to text]
  27. Lorde 1984: 54. [Return to text]
  28. Gwenaelle Gobe, “Miwa Matreyek: Illusion and Non-Illusion,” L.A. Record, 9 Aug. 2010, accessed on 27 Oct. 2011. [Return to text]
  29. Gobe 2010. [Return to text]
  30. Lorde 1984: 54. [Return to text]
  31. Miwa Matreyek, quoted in Gobe 2010. [Return to text]
  32. Lynette Wallworth, quoted in Catherine Wilson, “Review of Theatre de l’Archeveche, International Festival d’Art Lyrique, Aix-en-Provence, 27 June – 23 July 2008,” Interface: Visual Art Exhibitions and Events with a Platform for Critical Writing, n.d., accessed on 27 Oct. 2011. [Return to text]
  33. Wilson n.d. [Return to text]
  34. Laura U. Marks, Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2002), 18. [Return to text]
  35. Marks 2002: 20. [Return to text]
  36. Karl Lydén, “Part of the Process–Mark Boulos: Ecstasy, Militancy, and Marxist Filmmaking,” Mousse Contemporary Art Magazine, 24 (Jun. 2010), accessed 27 Oct. 2011. [Return to text]
  37. Mark Boulos, quoted in Lydén 2010. [Return to text]
  38. Lorde 1984: 57. [Return to text]
  39. RAW/WAR was made in collaboration with Alexandra Chowaniec, Gian Pablo Villamil, Stacy Duda, and Paul Paradiso. [Return to text]
  40. Shari M. Frilot, interview by the author, Los Angeles, CA, 12 Sept. 2008. [Return to text]
  41. Frilot 2008. [Return to text]
  42. Frilot 2008. [Return to text]
  43. 1993 MIX: New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film/Video Festival, 3. [Return to text]
  44. The description of the Video Gong Show reads that after “Ten years of you (the queer experimental film and video marking and viewing public) submitting to Our (the Valiant fest organizers) curatorial choices (wise as we feel they may be!) … tonight the choice is yours!” [Return to text]
  45. 1996 MIX: New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film/Video Festival 10th Anniversary Catalog, p. 15. Victoria MIX took place at the Victoria 5 Theatre at 235 W. 125th Street, November 14-24, 1996. [Return to text]
  46. Shari 2009. [Return to text]
  47. Sontag 1996. [Return to text]