The death of cinema was predicted with certainty when sound was introduced. And colour. And TV. By the time video became widely available, cinema was once again written off as yet another Miss Havisham, faffing about in expensive, outmoded clothes. A similar note of elegy echoed in ‘A Certain Tendency in Representation: Cineclub at Thomas Dane’, a week-long exhibition of recent artists’ film curated by Francesco Manacorda, featuring three programmes of excellent material that constituted a mini-festival off Piccadilly. Within the gallery space Slovenian artist Tobias Putrih, with architect Luka Melon, constructed a cinema environment of undulating plywood walls, cardboard floors, foam seats and fully-functional projection booth – low-cost materials that appeared knowingly temporary as well as remarkably elegant, bringing to mind the Art Nouveau curves of the early Odeon picture houses. The experience of cinema as an ad hoc community was in full effect, and the fragile material and fear of its collapse provided a sharp metaphor for the medium itself.
Nostalgia was foregrounded: the exhibition’s title referred to François Truffaut’s famous essay ‘Une Certaine Tendance du Cinéma’ (A Certain Tendency in Cinema, 1954), which laid out the case for the filmmaker as auteur, and the front rooms of the gallery exhibited film posters and projectors as artistic or historical objects in their own right. Sixteen-millimetre film dominated the selection. Less expensive than the industry standard of 35mm, it was the kind used for early documentary footage and much of what is now canonical experimental film. Its popularity long eclipsed by video, today the choice to use 16mm is often art-historically self-conscious – a way to recoup history, through found footage, or to position oneself in a certain lineage.
The films screened were, for the most part, loosely edited narratives, with observation reigning over formal exploration. Despite the exhibition’s stated focus on the cinematic, many of the filmmakers seemed as interested in their subjects as in their means of capturing them. A variety were time portraits in the manner of Andy Warhol: what happens to a face as it gets bored or excited, or the day as it comes and goes, as in Rosalind Nashashibi’s wonderfully distracted Midwest (2002), a recording of a town in Nebraska from morning to night. In Waiting, Acting Waiting (2002), a 15-minute film from a fixed camera position, Isabell Heimerdinger illustrates the Austrian actor Wolfram Berger at a photo shoot. Like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation (2003), he resignedly ambles through a litany of poses – a Rat Pack star in dark sunglasses, a yuppie in a blazer from Risky Business (1983) – and the film implicitly compares its own cinematic portrait to the photograph that will eventually result from the shoot. Flicker effects, present in a handful of the works, worked less to inhibit identification with the images on screen or to throw perception back onto the making of the film than to keep time, like an outmoded metronome. The filmmakers endeavoured to dislodge the cinematic illusion instead through means that were narrative: subjects registering the camera’s presence or the nonchalant inclusion of the filmmaker's shadow.
Marine Hugonnier’s impressive trilogy ‘Territory’ (2004) presented the Israeli-Palestine conflict through the prism of the area’s architecture, drawing connections between the functional white cubes of the desert landscape and those of Modernist design. The film went on to suggest that Israel has constructed Palestine as the Other – counter-progressive, sensual, irrational – a characterization that Hugonnier almost imperceptibly widened to include herself. The transformation from a discourse on art and architecture to one on politics and back to art, this time personal and unspoken, was marvellous.
In Staring Still (2002) Simon Popper showed a strip of film held on screen by a man’s finger. The single film cell became the frame for a home movie of a young boy. The set-up recalls a number of autobiographical films, among them Robert Frank’s Conversations in Vermont (1969) or even Hollis Frampton’s Nostalgia (1971), which similarly depict the image and its medium but inverts the relationship between these two. Instead of showing the literal movement of a photograph, as Frank and Frampton did, Popper installs a moving image where the depiction should be still (inside the cell) and suspends what should be moving (the film stock). The trick adds fiction and falseness, dislodging the link between transparent construction and clear authorship that operates in the earlier films.
Other works more directly addressed the Modernist legacy of experimental filmmaking, such as Paul Sietsema’s grand Empire (2002). The film portrays Clement Greenberg’s Abstract Expressionist-stocked apartment, and in its rigid editing both caricatures and pays tribute to the 1960s’ penchant for rule-based systems. Screened in the evening, and followed by John Bock’s fantastical Meechfieber (2004), the ambitious and elegant Empire emphasized that ‘A Certain Tendency …’ was a homage rather than a requiem for cinema.