Since roughly the early 1980s, we have lived through a grand mutation in visual culture, one that has accompanied the socio-political transformations wrought by nearly four decades of global neoliberal capitalism. As a result of technological developments and, underpinning them, economic and ideological forces, what were once relatively stable and monolithic viewing formats – cinema, television – have simultaneously become both dispersed, pluralised, atomised, and absorbed into an omnipresent, all-embracing, deadeningly homogeneous digital panopticon, from which, with its smartphones, touchscreens and video billboards serving as ever-watchful sentinels, the modern citizen has little chance of escaping.

This grand mutation – digital neoliberalism, we might call it – has itself coincided with a curious, parallel phenomenon. Beginning in the 1980s, but not truly picking up steam until the 1990s and 2000s, the cinema has made a spectacular entry into the contemporary art museum. Where once the domains of film – even in its experimental/avant-garde mode – and gallery-based video art remained hermetically sealed off from each other, divided by cultural milieux and economic structures as much as by viewing formats and technologies, now the two traditions have come together, merged to the point of indissolubility.

Once, the two worlds simply did not speak to each other. While moving-image work had a presence in the art-world, notably with the video art of Nam June Paik, Bill Viola and Anthony McCall, cinema did not have the requisite cultural cachet to take its place in the museum. Filmmakers may have come to be accepted as artists, but not as Artists. At the same time, however, the film world vaunted its status as a mass art – indeed, the mass art of the 20th century – and thus counterposed itself to the rarefied elitism of the gallery.

Now, this has all changed. Exhibitions are dedicated to the work of the great directors of the past, integrating them into the artistic canon, while filmmakers belonging to more recent generations – among them Agnès Varda, Jean-Luc Godard, Pedro Costa, Abbas Kiarostami, Chantal Akerman, Harun Farocki, Chris Marker – have been commissioned in increasing numbers to create installation pieces, with work that has been stimulating, inquisitive, groundbreaking, and, in the case of Godard’s Voyage(s) en utopie (2006, Centre Pompidou) at least, highly controversial. The migration between the movie-theatre and the museum has also taken place in the opposite direction: most prominently with artist Steve McQueen’s Oscars coronation for Twelve Years a Slave (2013), but also with the work of Matthew Barney, Johan Grimonprez, Isaac Julien, Philippe Parreno, Shirin Neshat and numerous others. Other artists have steadfastly remained in the gallery, but their work has thematically centred on either the cinema’s role in our broader cultural history (from Douglas Gordon’s 1993 work 24-Hour Psycho to Christian Marclay’s 2011 opus The Clock, passing through the œuvre of Pierre Huyghes), or on the filmmaking apparatus itself, a tendency which reached its apotheosis with Tacita Dean’s monumentalist exhibition Film in the Tate Modern in 2011.

cinema and the museum

Film (Tacita Dean, 2011)

Today, moreover, there are many figures who are neither filmmaker-cum-artists nor artist-cum-filmmakers, but who are equally at home in both institutional environments. A pluralist mindset prevails among the likes of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Wang Bing, Albert Serra and Anri Sala, for whom the decision to show their work in a cinema or a gallery-setting is one of opportunity more than principle, of suitability to the specific work rather than fidelity to a given format.

The respective tentacles of the cinema and the museum, therefore, have reached far into each other. For many filmmakers, the migration to the museum has been felt as a form of liberation – even if few have abandoned the cinema entirely. No longer are they subject to the commercial pressures that impregnate even auteurist cinema, or to the limitations on formal technique, duration or even screen format that the cinema-setting imposes. There has also been a tendency among critics and scholars to treat the museum as a haven of freedom – for both artist and spectator – in opposition to the oppressive dispositif of the cinema. As the apparatus theorists of the 1970s conjectured, the cinema coerced the viewer into sitting, immobilised, in a darkened room, while they were spoonfed images, projected onto the screen from an invisible device behind the heads of the audience, conveying linear, closed, narratives imbued with the illusionist aesthetics of bourgeois realism. In contrast, the prevailing set-up in the gallery, an image projected on-loop in a semi-lit space, with the visitor given total freedom to come and go and move around at will, represented a gesture of ideological emancipation from the strictures of the cinema. The “black box” of the cinema signified repression, illusion, stultification; the “white cube” of the gallery openness, curiosity, liberty.

But the picture, of course, is more complex than this. As an institution, the contemporary art museum, having exponentially proliferated in recent decades, has a particularly complex, even vexatious, place in our societies. On the one hand, they present themselves as sites of critical thinking, aesthetic experimentation and resistance to the totalising power structures of late capitalism. And yet, economically, culturally and symbolically, the museum is totally integrated into the present-day global economic order. From its billionaire patrons to the consumerist logic of its exhibition systems, with their superstar artists and blockbuster shows, capitalism is baked into the DNA of contemporary art. This is not to mention the museum’s role in tourism, city-branding and extending the “soft power” of nation-states, no matter how reactionary and repressive they may be (the Louvre’s Abu Dhabi off-shoot being the totemic example here). Rarely has cognitive dissonance been so flagrant as it is in the yawning gap that exists between the radically anti-capitalist proclamations of artists, critics and curators, on the one hand, and the structural reality of the museum-as-institution on the other.

In this light, the absorption by the museum of film culture demands to be seen in a less positive light. Rather than an act of liberation, is it not an occupation, a power-play by one institution, one dispositif, against another, less reputable, less endowed with cultural capital? As cinema hit a period of vulnerability, buffeted by the rise of new visual media, convulsed by the changes wrought by the conversion to digital production and exhibition, plunged into necrological introspection by its own centenary and mired in a sentiment of formal exhaustion with the passing of its high-modernist period (and the perishing of many of the filmmakers who embodied it), did the museum not intuit an opportunity to expand the orbit of its influence? Were its curatorial paeans to the cinema’s past not, in actual fact, an effort to consign the seventh art to a state of historical obsolescence, so that it could be safely plundered, much as ancient artefacts from distant lands were purloined by European museums in the 19th century? Is the now ubiquitous presence of the film projector in the gallery space not a sign – cause and effect – of its disappearance from contemporary popular culture?

Indeed, symptomatic of this relationship is the conditions under which moving-image works are actually viewed in art galleries. Those of us from cinephile backgrounds, tempted into the museum by the lure of a new piece from an admired filmmaker, must struggle to hide our shock upon encountering it in this context: apart from some laudable exceptions, we will invariably be confronted with a substandard projection screening in broad daylight, with a soundtrack muffled and distorted by the sonic bleed from neighbouring works and the general hubbub of the gallery-going public. Any attempt to see the work in its entirety, or at the very least give it the prolonged consideration it should merit, will be thwarted by the looped nature of the screening (a throw-back of sorts to pre-war entrée permanente movie-houses) and the near-total absence of seating. In the end, we will join the other patrons who insouciantly give the piece the bare minimum of their time and attention before moving on to take in the rest of the museum’s collection. An artist who was capable of keeping us transfixed for two hours-plus in the cinema struggles to detain our gaze for more than a few minutes in the gallery.

cinema and the museum

Voyage(s) en utopie (Jean-Luc Godard, 2006)

The cinematic apparatus may well have been a repressive institution infusing its spectators with the dominant ideology, but it also provided the ideal conditions for the kind of intense, contemplative vision that any aesthetic reflection on moving images requires. Despite the veneer of “high culture” legitimacy afforded by the institution of the museum, and the clamour of avant-garde militancy bruited about in the contemporary art world, when the moving image is transported to the museum, it all too frequently conforms to the distracted, skittish mode of viewing common to television, the Internet and the assorted “new” media of 21st century capitalism.

This is not even to mention the quixotically anti-Benjaminian practices of many of the well-established moving-image artists operating in gallery environments. In contrast to earlier experimental filmmakers, who still held onto film’s status as a mass-medium founded on technologies of infinite “mechanical reproduction”, the work of these new artistic grandees is released in limited prints, acquired by galleries for hundreds of thousands of dollars. A more anti-cinematic mentality can hardly be conceived.

And yet, this should not detract from the fact that, beyond the power struggles and institutional battles, the encounter between cinema and the museum has been a formally fertile one, yielding some of the foremost art works of the last quarter-century, and expanding the aesthetic possibilities available to filmmakers and gallery-artists alike. The moving image itself has become more diverse, more heterogeneous and more open to innovation as a result.

To take stock of these contradictory tendencies, and the debates that they have provoked, this Senses of Cinema dossier presents a suite of articles offering a range of viewpoints. The central component of the dossier is a theoretical pas de deux bringing into dialogue with one another two of the foremost thinkers in film studies, both of whom have devoted much of their recent interest to this area. In “The Loop of Belatedness: Cinema After Film in the Contemporary Art Gallery”, Thomas Elsaesser looks at the role played by the museum in the context of cinema’s “post-film” condition, as the rise of the digital image has raised new questions about the specificity of cinema which have been productively explored by filmmakers and artists. But he also interrogates a more ambivalent phenomenon: is the interest in cinema among contemporary artists and institutions simply a case of nostalgic fetishism for a now obsolete technology and soon-to-vanish cultural practice?

cinema and the museum

Phantoms of Nabua (Apichtapong Weerasethakul, 2009)

Raymond Bellour, meanwhile, has steadfastly insisted on the ineradicable differences between cinema-viewing and gallery-going, even when the museum visitor is confronted with moving images drawn from the same creative wellsprings as the best of modern cinema. In his article, “The Quarrel of the Dispositifs: Reprise” (an exclusive translation of a chapter from his colossal 2012 monograph La Querelle des dispositifs), Bellour argues that, while the cinema remains bound to a singular, stable dispositif (the seated, paying spectator, the dark room, the linear, single-screen projection), moving image installations are defined by a perpetual re-invention of their own dispositif. The rules of the game, as it were, are devised each time it is played. To argue his case, however, Bellour discusses an installation by a filmmaker who, perhaps more than any other, moves seamlessly between the two formats: Weerasethakul’s Phantoms of Nabua.

These two panoramic analyses of the broader relationship between cinema and the museum are accompanied by three case studies of the work of individual artists. In “On Sound and Artistic Moving Images: Anri Sala’s Acoustic Territories”, Catherine Fowler takes a look at the work of the Albanian artist Anri Sala, and in particular the sonic strategies Sala has used in his videos and installations in order to prompt his audience to move through and around gallery spaces. Kate Warren’s discussion of the Franco-Lebanese couple Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, “Crossing Boundaries: Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s Work in Art and Film”, offers a valuable corrective to what can often be a highly Eurocentric discursive framework. With an œuvre of film, video and photography that explores the historical contours of the Middle East, Hadjithomas/Joreige’s work skirts the threshold between art and cinema, Western and Eastern cultures, and, more fundamentally, between “truth” and “lies” in the political sphere. Finally, Alex Munt’s contribution, “Alexander Sokurov’s Francofonia: Museum Studies”, takes an inverse approach, charting the entrance of the museum into a filmmaker’s work, with the Russian master’s recent film Francofonia, shot mostly in the Louvre, rounding out his trilogy of “museological” films ruminating on art, history and Western culture.

The five contributions to this dossier are fired, to varying degrees, by a spirit of polemic, but they have also been governed by the desire to open up discussion rather than close it. Debates will no doubt continue to rage about the role of moving images in the museum, and the value of the works presented there. Even with the grand media convergence that marks the age of digital neoliberalism, we can be assured that the quarrel of the dispositifs will long continue.