Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 7, 2015
Andrew V. Uroskie Between the Black Box and the White Cube: Expanded Cinema and Postwar Art Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. 288 pp.; 100 b/w ills. Paper $30.00 (9780226842998)

In the closing pages of his fine book Between the Black Box and the White Cube: Expanded Cinema and Postwar Art, Andrew V. Uroskie delivers a vivid explication of Ken Dewey’s multimedia project Selma Last Year (1966). With this work, Dewey proposes to redefine the social character of media through sophisticated interrelations of technology and live performance contingent to a viewer’s presence: “the act of spectatorship itself [was] staged” (226). The stakes of this staging are evidenced in the work’s radical reconfiguration from its first to its second iteration. The work was initially conceived as an exhibition of photographs of the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, which was a major media event of the Civil Rights Era. Dewey’s installation was presented on the one-year anniversary of the march in the First Unitarian Church in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, imbuing it with a reverential poignancy. This sentiment would turn to pointed class critique in the work’s second formulation for the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, New York. “In contrast to the relatively diverse early audiences in Chicago,” Uroskie observes, “the audience at Lincoln Center would be disproportionately white and affluent. Dewey describes wanting to ‘break through’ the ‘self-satisfied nature’ of those largely insulated from the harsh reality of the civil rights struggle and rapidly becoming inured to its images of suffering” (219). In a new component to the work, viewers could watch an 8mm rear-projection continuous loop of violence committed by the police against civil rights activists in Selma on “Bloody Sunday.” Set next to this repetition of widely circulated images, Dewey presents another screen, this one a television depicting viewers as they appeared eight seconds prior. The constitutive force of the work is generated in a split attention, a psychophysical tension between the process of recognizing one’s own familiar image and the urgent, existential stakes of enfranchisement exemplified in the brutal crackdown of state power against its citizens. The process of coming into a field of representation—as a subject and as a participant in the American political process—was manifested through the capabilities of moving-image technology. Dewey’s work presents media as a problem of civil rights.

“Dewey was less interested in the creation of objects than in the production of situations” (203), Uroskie argues. Selma Last Year utilizes the disjunction of multimedia presentation as a means by which to concentrate on social disjunction in the mid-1960s. For these ambitions, Dewey is a central figure in Uroskie’s argument for a situational rather than ontological preoccupation in multimedia experiments of the 1960s. At the same time, it presents challenges. Sames (1965), made just prior to Selma Last Year, is comprised of live performances coordinated with film projection. Five women in wedding dresses stand motionless on stage, “a theater of the frozen pose” (206), while shifting spotlights and film projections flicker around them. The projections depict the same women in their bridal gowns traveling the city, with these images in competition with the women’s presence at the site of projection: “Dewey’s multiply decentered film was simultaneously more and less real than the bodies it represented” (207). The projection and performers were accompanied by three sound works including I (1964), in which the dancer John Graham enunciated varying inflections of the pronoun distorted by Terry Riley’s Time-Lag Accumulator, and Riley’s It’s Me (1965–66) and That’s Not You (1965–66), of similarly repetitious, dissonant character. Sames is exemplary in its need for explication of the “cacophony of reference” (207) in the context of sexuality and gender. The implications of Dewey’s troubling of the relation of sign and referent through the projected representation of women in bridal gowns generates provocative implications concerning women’s bodies as “more and less real” sites of difference. While Uroskie does not take up this inquiry for Sames, his analysis of Selma Last Year shows the sophistication of Dewey’s work in discourses of race and class.

The care and nuance Uroskie devotes to Dewey’s work is characteristic of case studies presented throughout Between the Black Box and the White Cube. In taking as his object the idea of cinema in postwar art, Uroskie offers a model for future scholarship on the complex, multifarious activity collected under the term “expanded cinema.” His achievement rests in part on his lucid discussion of the etymology of “expanded” in a broader context of postwar art. That the word was common to rhetoric so diametrically opposed—Gene Youngblood’s “expanded cinema as expanded consciousness” on the one hand, Rosalind Krauss’s “expanded field” of sculpture on the other—has been a longstanding academic curiosity, the gulf between them common knowledge yet its full implications not considered critically (Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema, New York: Dutton, 1970; and Rosalind E. Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” October 8 [Spring 1979]: 30–44). “Expanded cinema” is distinguished by its inclusive character, more a catchword for technologically aided stimulation than a rubric of consistent traits germane to a delimited number of works. To its acolytes, expanded cinema was a state of mind, more verb than category. “Expanded cinema isn’t a movie at all,” Youngblood wrote in his 1970 book. “Like life it’s a process of becoming. . . . The intermedia network of cinema and television . . . now functions as nothing less that the nervous system of mankind” (41). However, to the critic Annette Michelson, cinema’s fulfillment of its “radical aspiration” would necessitate disavowal of such multimedia experimentation (see Annette Michelson, “Film and the Radical Aspiration,” Film Culture 42 [Fall 1966]: 34–42 and 136). Michelson dismissed the work of Dewey among others as manifesting the “old dream of synesthesia” (42) void of political acumen. Such acumen would be found by contending with cinema’s social and technological variables as problems for the medium, its medium-specificity. In contrast to the critical support formulating structural-materialist film, expanded cinema was cast as an imprecise counterpart, a program of bohemian naïveté. Cinema’s relevance for art and art history would be reinvigorated, not in Youngblood’s euphoria for a “Paleocybernetic Age,” but rather in the “hyperbolically rigorous” (9), a cool, sober brand of order adapted from structural anthropology and linguistics. This aspiration—and anxiety—for order was exemplified in Krauss’s “logically” plotted field of disturbances that centered on the modernist paradigm of medium specificity in sculpture. Expanded cinema embraced the anxiety as part of a more general exploration of the implications posed by the moving image for the arts.

As Uroskie shows, expanded cinema projects of the mid-1960s, most often associated with multiscreen projection, were a culmination of rich and long-developing experimentation with the locational character of cinema. The idea of expanded cinema was defined by “consciousness of the paradoxical site specificity of cinema practice” (11). Rejuvenation of the avant-garde demanded reinvention of institutional conditions. Awareness of this necessity arose from protocols of production, exhibition, and spectatorship, exemplified by the studio system of Hollywood. Artists’ consideration of cinema meant contending with these protocols, as an examination of cinema’s ontology was fraught by this massive, determining infrastructure. “Rather than asking how film was articulated as an artistic medium, we need to ask instead how the very idea of ‘medium’ was being transformed by the essentially hybrid and diffuse nature of the moving image” (12). Uroskie posits “not what is cinema?” in André Bazin’s fundamental question of film studies, but “where?” (12; emphasis in original) The idea of cinema is inextricable from its contingent sites.

To answer this reformulation, Uroskie delineates the historical character of experimentation with multiscreen cinema. He finds that the apparent novelty of multiscreen cinema was possible only due to a “particularly acute form of historical amnesia” (21). The kind of “active” spectatorship touted in multimedia works of the era had precedent in aspirations reinvented several times over at World Expositions, such as Raoul Grimoin-Sanson’s Cinéorama of 1897 and Fred Waller’s Vitarama system presented in the Perisphere at the 1939 Fair. Such rhetoric of maximal stimulation was also present in attempts by Hollywood studios to compete with television in the 1950s with various products of enlargement such as Cinerama, Todd-AO, and CinemaScope. The motivator of the purportedly more active, liberated spectator, Uroskie observes, was a product of managing the proliferation of visual data generated by the multimedia technology. In this way, the expanded cinema offers not so much an innovation in media application as a symptom of untenable processes of control. The expanded cinema appears as the effect of more sophisticated currents of experimentation arising first from within an institutional framework. “Rhetoric of immersion” (22) was a commonplace well before the term “expanded cinema” was in circulation. Uroskie explores particular examples of radical experimentation, drawing case studies from more familiar figures, such as Andy Warhol and Stan VanDerBeek, as well as those due for further consideration, such as Dewey and Robert Whitman. He provides close readings attentive to the content of the images projected and their particular sites of exhibition.

Uroskie argues that a complex range of immersion was broached in works such as Zen for Film (1964) by Nam June Paik, Sleep (1963) by Warhol, and Moveyhouse (1965) by Claes Oldenburg. Each manifest the hybrid character of the cinematic situation, and in their own way “articulated a kind of ‘degree zero’ of cinema—a desire to reinvent not merely the formal possibilities of the cinematic image, but the sediment of social conduct and expectation that maintained a larger conceptualization of ‘cinema’ as such” (49). The contradictory and sometimes contentious positions within these debates is exemplified by the Invisible Cinema conceived by Peter Kubelka for Anthology Film Archives in 1970, with its black-velvet-cloaked hoods and blinders a kind of peak manifestation of an abiding impulse to discipline film into a proper Art. While the Invisible Cinema remains a quizzical, infamous anecdote in the history of experimental cinema, it is indicative of a more generalized compulsion in advanced moving-image art of the era to ask how the idea of cinema might problematize conventions of exhibition and spectatorship for art at large. Uroskie argues that this line of thought generated broader formulations of “post-cinematic” art that proliferate to this day.

Uroskie’s writing is strong on Warhol’s Outer and Inner Space (1965) and Whitman’s Prune. Flat. (1965). His examination of the psychic effects of split-screen formulation, the play of figure and ground, illumination and concealment exemplifies his careful balance between theoretical considerations and rich formal analysis. Historical context is abundant. Uroskie’s scholarship is evident in the argument for Michael Kirby over Allan Kaprow regarding the relations of modern dance and audiovisual assemblage. Accusations of regressive synesthesia are complicated productively through discussion of concomitant experiments in choreography incorporating film projection, a desire shared by dance and cinema for a temporal inscription of movement in terms of heterogeneity and disjunction. In all, Uroskie offers an essential chronicle of experimentation often defined by its willful disavowal of categorical parameters. From a far-ranging field of projects, Uroskie does not attempt to unify a theory of expanded cinema, but rather traces, and with great effectiveness, complex impulses that took up the moving image for particular purposes.

Between the Black Box and the White Cube is a vital contribution to growing research on the interdisciplinary character of art in the postwar period. In addition to its value for an art-historical regard of the moving image, Uroskie’s study should be read in a wider spectrum of current disciplinary turns in film and media studies, media archaeology, cultural techniques, and discourses of “post-cinema” at large, along with a renewed focus on animation, environments, sound, and color. It may be understood in dialogue with Thomas Elsaesser’s observations on the recent proliferation of three-dimensional imaging (3-D) and interest in the history of stereoscopy as a “return of the repressed” within a long history of discourses of simulated recession and scale. In this return, we are not dealing with a few quixotic industry products but a wide range of inventions blossoming into our present paradigm of generalized surveillance (Thomas Elsaesser, “The ‘Return’ of 3-D: On Some of the Logics and Genealogies of the Image in the Twenty-First Century,” Critical Inquiry 39 [Winter 2013]: 217–46). “Rhetorics of expansion,” in their mid-1960s iteration examined by Uroskie, may be seen in a generative context of other aspirations for capacious vision systems and spatial projection. In this way, Between the Black Box and the White Cube offers case studies toward a history of what Harun Farocki calls the “operational image”: an image not for contemplation but rather a set of instructions. For these complex conditions, the moving image may be “homeless,” as Uroskie concludes, yet in him it has found a thoughtful, rigorous historian.

Kenneth White
PhD candidate, Department of Art and Art History, Stanford University