Light as a Subversive Medium.

Subversion in cinema starts when the theatre darkens and the screen lights up.

“But that the white eye-lid of the screen reflect its proper light,
the Universe would go up in flames.”
Luis Buñuel

This time I start with a young man, Amos Vogelbaum, born in Vienna in 1921, who tells us about how he is growing up: “Nothing happened in the first 15 years, but then I went to the Viennese cinema “Urania” in 1936 (note: still in use today!) and saw the film “Night Mail” and this film was a revelation. I realized that you can combine documentary films with poetic films. That then shaped the rest of my life.”

Only two years later he fled the Nazi terror and emigrated to the United States. In New York City, his new home, he — now as Amos Vogel — became one of the world’s most influential film curators: first as the founder of the Cinema 16 film society (1947-63), and later as the co-founder of the New York Film Festival (1963-68). His book Film as a Subversive Art (1974) influenced generations of cinephiles and curators and was instrumental in establishing film curatorship as a form of aesthetic, social and political activism.

The rest is history. Last year he would have turned 100, so the Austrian festival for the international film “Viennale” and the Austrian Film Museum dedicated a joint retrospective to him: Film as a Subversive Art 2021 – A Tribute to Amos Vogel, to search for the subversive forms of cinema in the 21st century. What does subversion mean…?

“Subversion in cinema starts when the
theatre darkens and the screen lights up."
Amos Vogel

“As soon as the lights are lowered, the huge rectangle of the screen becomes the viewer’s total universe. (…) But the essence of cinema is not light, but a secret compact between Light and darkness. Half of all the time at the movies is spent by the transfixed victims of this technological art in complete darkness. There is no image on the screen at all. In the course of a single second, 48 periods of darkness follow 48 periods of light.

Thus, during half the time spent at the movies, the viewer sees no picture at all; and at no time is there any movement. (Be aware: 45 minutes of total darkness out of every 90 minutes of film!) Without the viewer’s physiological and psychological complicity, the cinema could not exist.

Removed from the real world, isolated even from fellow viewer’s, the spectator falls to dream and reverie in the womb-like darkness of the theatre. Except for seeing and hearing, body and other senses are at rest in the cinema. (…) Perhaps the state of the viewer is closest to that between walking and sleeping, in which he abandons the rationality of daily life while not yet completely surrendering to his unconscious.

And the image is powerful; one cannot turn away from it. (…) One cannot resist the attraction of movement when entering a room or cinema, ones eyes are inevitably drawn to the moving shapes. And: cinema is closer to the viewer as performance – strange tribute to the faculties of a brain more affected by two-dimensional reflections on flat canvas than by live actors performing in three-dimensional space.” (Amos Vogel, Preface – Film as a Subversive Art, 1974)

"The art form closest to film is undoubtedly music," says Michael Haneke, one of the most important writers and directors in world cinema.

“The art form closest to film is undoubtedly music,” says Michael Haneke, one of the most important writers and directors in world cinema, who will be a guest at the Vienna Musikverein in March 2022. The focus will be on the musicality of his films and Haneke’s enthusiasm for music. 

“The miracle that in music the highest abstraction is capable of producing the highest emotionality can also occur in cinema. Both take place within a fixed period of time. Music begins with the first note and ends with its last. A painting remains present. I can look at it, withdraw from it, come back to it. 

I can interrupt the reading of a novel, a poem, I can put it away, come back to it, resume the thread of its narrative of my own free will. Performative art, on the other hand, always has an event character. It needs a different structure due to its inherent arrow of time, since it is bound to the receptivity and willingness to absorb of the recipient. The question of form is therefore an essential one, especially in these two arts.”

With Haneke, a four-day festival was conceived in cooperation with the Austrian Film Museum, which is realizing a comprehensive retrospective of the director’s work on the occasion of his 80th birthday. Films from his hand are put in connection with concerts – the canvas of the “Invisible Cinema” of the Austrian Film Museum is juxtaposed with the stage of the “Golden Hall” of the Vienna Musikverein. 

According to Alexander Kluge, a German thinker / author / director, “people condense their sensations into complexes in 100,000-year intervals. Therefore they build opera houses, concert halls and cinema spaces for faithful administration.” He said also:

"We don't perceive a contradiction between writing books, making films or producing a television program. These days you can't choose how you want to express yourself anymore.”
Alexander Kluge
The Große Musikvereinssaal in Vienna (1870) — “the Golden Hall” — is a space that transmutes architecture into music and music into architecture. (Foto: Wiener Musikverein)

The Große Musikvereinssaal from 1870 provides seating for 2,000 music lovers, with 1,700 seats, and approximately 300 standing places. The acoustic experience is equally good throughout the hall. Indeed, the Große Musikvereinssaal continues to set the standard for acoustic excellence today (worldwide). The outstanding acoustic qualities of the concert hall are not the result of strictly empirical science – after all, systematic research studies of acoustics only took place decades thereafter – but were rather a consequence of the architectonic concept underpinning the design. The rectangular box form of the hall is known to provide the optimal environment for spatial acoustics. Within this framework, additional elements – the coffered ceiling, balconies and caryatids – ensure the optimal dispersion of sound waves. (Note: A caryatid is a sculpted female figure serving as an architectural support taking the place of a column). Other details also have a positive function in acoustic terms: a void beneath the wooden flooring provides – just as with a violin – a resonating base, and the wooden ceiling, which is not simply laid upon but is hanging from the roof trusses, provides an advantage in allowing the sound to resonate throughout the hall.

The darkness of the “Invisible Cinema” alternates with the bright sound of the concert hall. The deep black perception machine, in which nothing is supposed to distract from the white canvas, plays a match against the space, which is itself an instrument, in which there are only winners: the receptive recipients. Or in the words of Michael Haneke:

"I can see you better if I close my eyes."
Michael Haneke

DON'T LOOK NOW.

The value of sitting in the dark (together) and experiencing the cinema situation is still considered to be a key phenomenon of media perception in the modern world. This project aims at establishing artistic research concerning the fact that “cinema” is not solely the film itself, but contains the whole situation in which the film is projected: the dark hall, the white canvas, the light beams hitting the canvas, reflecting the light, slightly illuminating the space in front, the permanent change of light and darkness, sound and silence, the “in-occupation of bodies“ within the space, viewers cocooned in their seats. We will show that this physical core-affect of cinema still holds true in digital times.

The point of departure for this project is an art installation that we conceived in 2009 in the media lab of the Institute for Architecture and Media at Graz University of Technology. All began with the narrative “The Light Rehearsal”, as Daniel Kehlmann calls his first and most impressive theatrical experience. Similarly, we experienced the cinema space of the Austrian Film Museum and its empty, carefully illuminated white canvas, which was unveiled by an opened curtain. The project A CANVAS IS NO WALL. was released in 2009 as a video installation in the so-called Invisible Cinema, the cinema space of the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna.

The Light Rehearsal,

taken from a speech of Author Daniel Kehlmann, who is probably also well known in the U.S. for his novel “Measuring the World”, held during the opening ceremony of the „Salzburg Festival“, July 25, 2009. Salzburg features opera, drama and concerts and is one of the most famous festivals in Europe — if you ask an Austrian: in the world… He said:

“Actually, my first and greatest theatrical experience did not involve any actors at all. I was four years old, my father was rehearsing at the Theater an der Josefstadt in Vienna, and my mother and I had come from Munich to visit him. One morning he took me to the lighting rehearsal. I can still see the empty auditorium in front of me, the empty stage with the curtain open. My father shouted something upstairs, and suddenly a huge crystal chandelier – to me at least it seemed huge – began to shine down from the darkness. The enormous space became bright. My father shouted something again, the chandelier rose, the shadows became longer, and finally the chandelier had disappeared into the blackness of the ceiling. I didn’t know, of course, that this happened every night; I really believed it happened just for me and for the first time. I was startled and happy. No theatrical performance ever came close to that morning.”

Luster, Straeusselsäle (Fotocredit: Theater in der Josefstadt)

The Invisible Cinema.

Based on a concept by Peter Kubelka that was first realised in New York at the Anthology Film Archives in 1970, the Invisible Cinema, with its all black design, serves as a “viewing and listening machine,” permitting viewers to focus their concentration with utmost intensity on the film being shown. The screening room was entirely black with thick curtains and carpet to muffle sound. The space includes 90-120 seats (records differ) which are built with blinders on both sides and a hood that curves over each viewers seat. Talking during the film could get you kicked out, but it was nearly impossible to have any social interaction once seated. As Robert Haller describes, if you were on a date the most you could do was awkwardly hold hands under the hooded seat.

From left to right: P. Adams Sitney, Jonas Mekas, and Peter Kubelka (Artist/Designer) at the Invisible Cinema, Anthology Film Archives, 1970. Courtesy Anthology Film Archives.

Peter Kubelka describes the Invisible Cinema (I), NYC 1970:

“The cinema is a black and silent room in which there are no noises or other sounds from the outside world. People go there at a certain time and they remain seated doing nothing else for two hours. This situation is the deepest and profoundest opportunity that we have in the whole world to approach the work of somebody in which we are interested. We are forced by circumstances to concentrate completely on one thing. All other media and especially the digital media can work everywhere else, they are part of the environment, they sponsor dissipation, and so the film event is the greatest situation of an encounter with somebody else’s thoughts.”

Our examination of architecture and the cinema space continued in 2014 with a digital re-composition of Peter Kubelka’s structural film Arnulf Rainer (1960) featuring students of the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna and the KunstUni Linz. In his story-less, colourless and image-free structural film Arnulf Rainer (1960), one of the pillars of modernist cinema, Peter Kubelka presents his core elements of cinema: light and darkness, sound and silence. In our course, we digitally recomposed these six minutes and 24 seconds of film, “made out of transparent and black 35mm frames, deafening white noise and the relative silence of the untouched optical soundtrack” (Stefan Grissemann).

MONUMENT | FILM | CINEMA | SPACE

In “Arnulf Rainer” (1960) Peter Kubelka presents the hard core elements of cinema: light and darkness, sound and silence. Four decades later in 2012 he made its negative response, Antiphon: what was white before is now black; where there was sound there is now silence. Comprising a double projection of Arnulf Rainer and Antiphon, Kubelka’s latest project Monument Film is, in his own words, his final testament to the medium: Arnulf Rainer and Antiphon are screened individually, then both films are projected side-by-side and lastly superimposed on top of each other. (Pamela Jahn)

"What was white before is now black;
where there was sound there is now silence."
Arnulf Rainer (1960) / Antiphon (2012), projected side-by-side.

Our screenings were rare moments to test a reworked historical media art project in two authentic and very different locations: one of the most loaded architectural spaces of the ]a[ academy of fine arts vienna: the “Anatomiesaal” and a parking lot at the KunstUni Linz.

In The Cinema Project, we would like to go several steps further. The project aims at establishing the cinema space as genuine contemporary architectural archetype of its own. As both trained architects and video artists, we feel motivated to make a contribution to the cross- disciplinary meaning of the cinema space as an enabler in order to prove that presence also exists in hypermediated states. The “now” is difficult to locate this is why the project title DON’T LOOK NOW. has been chosen. One should disassociate the idea of presence from the idea of non-mediation by “preparing models for the future amidst the after-images of film” (A. Horvath, 2009)

Research Context.

Peter Kubelka and the Invisible Cinema

“The cinema is a dark space, a protected silent space, and people sit in their seats and have to concentrate on what they get from the screen: sound and image. (...) And this precious situation is only there because film cannot work by daylight because it’s a shadowplay.”
Peter Kubelka, 2012.
Peter Kubelka and the Invisible Cinema | Kubelka's work covers the two disciplines the project deals with: Film/Media and Architecture | photo: http://lux.org.uk

Atmospheres in Architecture

“The concept of atmosphere troubles architectural discourse – haunting those that try to escape it and eluding those that chase it.”
Mark Wigley, 1998.
Atmospheres in Architecture | "Atmosphere seems to start precisely where the construction stops. It surrounds a space, clinging to the material object. Indeed, it seems to emanate from the object." (Mark Wigley)

Video Paintings

“Video is a way of configuring light, just as painting is a way of configuring paint. What you see is simply light patterned in various ways. For an artist, video is the best light organ that anyone has ever invented.”
Brian Eno, 1985.
14 Video Paintings | "I make videos that don’t move very fast." Brian Eno, 2005.

Theaters – Lichtspiele

“One night I had an idea while I was at the movies: to photograph the film itself. I tried to imagine photographing an entire feature film with my camera. In my imagination, this would appear as a glowing, white rectangle; it would come forward from the projection surface and illuminate the entire theatre. This idea struck me as being very interesting, mysterious, and even religious”.
Hiroshi Sugimoto, 2004.
Theaters - Lichtspiele | Hiroshi Sugimoto, Trylon Theatre New York, 1976.

Light. Screen. Canvas.

“See it, then go to your neighbourhood theater and see it again.”
Nam Jun Paik, ZEN FOR FILM.
Nam June Paik, Zen for Film, 1962 - 1964.

A Cinematic Atopia

“The ultimate film goer would not be able to distinguish between good or bad films, all would be swallowed up into an endless blur. He would not be watching films, but rather experiencing blurs of many shades. Between blurs he might even fall asleep, but that wouldn’t matter.”
Robert Smithson, 1971.
A Cinematic Atopia | Robert Smithson, Towards the Development of a Cinema Cavern (1971) Pencil, photography, tape. 12 5:8 x 15 5:8.

The Cinema Situation

“There is a 'cinema situation', and this situation is pre-hypnotic. I do not consider cinema to be solely the film itself, but the whole situation: the dark hall, the 'inoccupation of bodies' within it, viewers cocooned in their seats. Unlike television, whose domestic space holds no erotic charge, cinema’s urban darkness is anonymous, exiting, available.”
Roland Barthes, 1986.
The Cinema Situation | Filmstill: Mulholland Drive, David Lynch, 2001.

Future Cinema

Hans Hurch, who directed the Austrian festival for the international film “Viennale” for 20 years before his unexpected death at the age of 64, described the evolution of cinema in 2016 as follows: “Cinema was once something quite normal for its visitors.  Then came digitization and streaming, and it suddenly became something special/exotic to go to the movies.” Hurch was convinced that the cinema space and its physical power is capable of turning this unique experience back into something normal which is and will be (still) part of our everyday cultural life.