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Installing the Moving Image

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Assistant Curator Jessica Bram shares insights on installing moving image art

From the first public demonstrations of optical toys in the fairgrounds of the 19th century, to the multi-modal, multi-screen, multi-sensory works exhibited today, the creative industries have long been challenged and buoyed by the complexities of installing and staging moving image artworks. Unlike artforms of other kinds, whose representations have a relatively uncomplicated execution, the display of works on screen – either singular or in collective composition – bring a unique set of artistic, curatorial, technical and spatial considerations. In many ways, the poignancy and captivation of these works comes from their ability to magically transport us out of the realm of the here-and-now, into what artist and critic Catherine Elwe’s calls a fictional “dream-world with no obvious causal link to the setting in which they are presently manifest.” And yet, often without reprieve, the mechanics and structures of these installations issue a very real and present reminder of space, place and time, making the abandonment of the everyday ever more difficult.

Central to the technique of installing moving image art then, and part of the delicate task when working alongside moving image artists, is understanding how the structures of display fit within the artistic concept; and how the screen-based work itself fits within the architectonics of the gallery or museum space. For some, creating the illusion of that fictional dream-world is of primary importance, and neat, unobtrusive options are sourced to conceal the technical and physical scaffolding required for display. In this context, both the exhibitions and audio/visual teams are challenged to find elegant and sophisticated solutions, and to create fit-outs that dissolve and dematerialise visually in the exhibition space. This was particularly so for contemporary Australian artist Del Kathryn Barton and filmmaker Brendan Fletcher, whose hauntingly beautiful short-film Oscar Wilde’s The Nightingale and the Rose was the focus of an ACMI exhibition Del Kathryn Barton: The Nightingale and the Rose in mid-2016. For Barton and Fletcher, while the quality and resolution of screening was crucial, it was also fundamental that the visitor’s viewing experience be wholly immersive and uncluttered. Finessed to the highest level, the clunky and bulky technologies of projector, media player, cables, speakers and screen, all faded into the background, and the bold and brilliant cinematic brushstrokes of their Nightingale came to life – absorbing, entrancing and utterly mesmerising.

For other moving image artists, the installation construction is intended as part of the way their work is experienced; consciously brought to the fore in the representational environment to add yet another dynamic layer to the visitor journey. Contemporary French artist Philippe Parreno, for example seeks to work with the exhibition itself as a medium. Parreno opened Philippe Parreno: Thenabouts, his first solo exhibition in Australia, at ACMI in December 2016. A collaborative artist whose practice encompass film, sculpture, drawing and text, Parreno sees a gallery’s architectural elements to be just as crucial as the moving image works he so masterfully projects. And so, in his choreographed setting of image and sound in ACMI’s Gallery 1, a live projectionist determines the sequence of visual and aural events from within a magnificent glass projection booth that sits proudly in plain view – illuminated, unmediated and unfettered – an homage to the process and practice of moving image as form. In the Whitney Museum of American Art’s latest show Dreamlands, a similar interrogation is currently at play. Focussing on the ways in which artists have “dismantled and reassembled the conventions of cinema to create new experiences of the moving image,” the exhibition spans more than a century of works by American artists and filmmakers and deliberately deconstructs and abstracts notions of projection, screen and space.

Whether the installation setting is intended as a vital ingredient to the exhibition journey, or whether it is seamlessly hidden from sight, the presentation of moving image works is increasingly complicated by the possible variances in aspect ratios, media formats and display hardware. Certainly, while the pace of new screen technologies continues to ignite and inspire an extraordinary array of new moving image artforms and new storytelling techniques, the requirements for museums and galleries to be adaptable and accommodating of those forms becomes ever more crucial. An exciting challenge for curators, technicians and exhibition coordinators indeed! 

This piece first appeared in Museum’s Australia’s members publication INSITE in February 2017