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International BFI


twixt black box & white cube

fabienne nicholas at the new BFI southbank, london


Jennifer & Kevin McCoy, Traffic Series Jennifer & Kevin McCoy, Traffic Series
THE LONDON DEBUT FOR TWO WORKS FROM KEVIN AND JENNIFER MCCOY SIGNALS THE FAR-REACHING AMBITIONS OF THE BRITISH FILM INSTITUTE’S RECENTLY LAUNCHED BFI SOUTHBANK. A REFURBISHED BUILDING, A NEW NAME AND AN UPDATED REMIT ARE PROPELLING THE BRITISH FILM INSTITUTE TOWARDS A FRESH APPROACH TO AUDIENCES AND TO THE RAPIDLY EVOLVING FORMS OF CINEMA CULTURE. ARTISTIC DIRECTOR EDDIE BERG OUTLINED THE AIMS FOR THE NEW CENTRE: “WE PLAN TO BUILD ON THE TRADITIONS AND HISTORIES OF THE BFI WHILE ENGAGING WITH NEW TECHNOLOGIES AND AESTHETICS AS THEY UNFOLD. BFI SOUTHBANK AIMS TO REFLECT ALL OF THESE DEVELOPING INFLUENCES ON THE CINEMATIC FORM AND EXPERIENCE. WE WANT TO HELP ESTABLISH NEW AGENDAS FOR THE FUTURE.”

Alongside the BFI’s National Film Theatres, known for their repertoire of world cinema programming, BFI Southbank is extending the institution’s cinema remit. There’s an intimate 38-seater studio for free daily screenings, talks and education programs; the Mediatheque—a David Adjaye designed space with individual booths for accessing curated selections from the BFI national archive; and a dedicated gallery space for media and video art. The soaring, light filled foyer is set to be a prime meeting place for hip Londoners with a very glam café/lounge bar and a much needed shop for the extensive collection of BFI publications. BFI Southbank has created a street-level cinema, geared to drawing new and younger audiences who are more familiar with the personal and immediate access to media provided by expanded forms of digital distribution.

Central to the venture is the opening out of the BFI archive, a major and growing collection of over 900,000 film and television titles. Programming for BFI Southbank evolved directly out of a rights holding issue: the structure of ownership means that the archive can be made more widely available only within BFI premises and at no charge to the public. The new venue has made a challenge an advantage, offering the collection as a resource to be accessed and interpreted, building awareness of the representation of our media histories. Perceptions of the archive are evolving—we’re accustomed to the personal collection and exhibition processes flickr and YouTube now offer, and responsiveness to these changes is shaping the functions of public media institutions.
Jennifer & Kevin McCoy, The Constant World Jennifer & Kevin McCoy, The Constant World
the virtual mccoys

Exploring an expanded future for cinema and the archive is what BFI Southbank is about, and the choice of US artists Kevin and Jennifer McCoy for the launch exhibition is an inspired one, tapping into their continuous examination of ideas around the elemental structure of cinema and the role of the viewer as a creator of meaning in the cinematic experience. The show was curated by Head of Exhibitions Michael Connor, for whom the McCoys’ Tiny, Funny, Big and Sad “marks a watershed moment for the BFI: the opening of a new gallery dedicated to artists’ film, video and new media. The gallery will present exhibitions that bridge the worlds of film and visual art, exploring the blue sky between the black box of the cinema auditorium and the white cube of the art museum.”

Tiny, Funny, Big and Sad presents two works: the critically acclaimed Traffic Series and a newly commissioned work, The Constant World. The pieces traverse the territories of both sculptural form and cinematic screen, exploring the pathways by which an image comes to life, through production, the viewing experience and through personal memory.

The Traffic installation offers the viewer a series of four physical and filmic spaces that represent the couple’s own relationship within the context of their cinematic memories. Four tabletop miniature ‘sets’ recreate specific moments from films that have marked key moments in their personal history. In Traffic 1: Our Second Date, the iconic traffic jam scene from Godard’s Weekend (1967) *is depicted with an endless lineup of toy cars, trucks and gawking spectators set in a bleached (fake) grass landscape. Around the table snake the extended arms of spotlighting fixtures and miniature cameras, picking up static shots from the handmade set that are edited via computer into sequences projected onto the adjacent wall. The artists themselves are depicted seated in the plush surrounds of a movie theatre, watching live video feed of this filmic recreation on a tiny cinema screen. They are subject to the camera’s gaze too—their ‘close-ups’ inserted within the projected narrative.

In another miniaturised tableux Traffic 2: In the Cardiac Ward, the tabletop film set is recreated from George Lucas’ American Graffiti, and appears on a tiny television in the hospital room where Kevin recovers from an illness. Not only are the artists recreating and replaying their own versions of the films, but also taking ownership of cinema as a personal space, determined by the deep and memorable associations we have with particular film moments. In a time when personal appropriations and archives of media are increasingly prevalent, the McCoys cause us to reflect on the multiplicity of images and narratives surrounding us and to acknowledge the inherent creativity involved in the act of viewing. These are works that can be accessed on a range of levels—from the sheer childlike pleasure of peering down upon these detailed miniature worlds to a deeper realisation of the viewer’s implication in the construction of meaning.

The McCoy’s new work, The Constant World, continues to develop these concerns. Hanging overhead in the main foyer is a vast, many armed structure, stylistically quite at home in a 1980s two-star hotel lobby. Each arm is made up of a self-contained set enclosed in perspex and steel, spotlight and miniature camera. The movie is played out on a plasma screen below, edited using a similar technique to previous works.

The scenes and sets refer to the ‘New Babylon’ visioned as a situationist city throughout the career of Dutch artist Constant Nieuwenhuys. Countless models, drawings and manifestos document Nieuwenhuys’ dream of this city of total automation, where a nomadic life of creative play arises as society is absolved from the need to work. Every aspect of the architecture can be altered spontaneously according to the mood of its inhabitants. In the piece text elements appear randomly throughout the narrative: “relaxation”, “anxiety”, “leisure” etc. Divorced of any direct context, the words become propaganda for the fleeting moments and associations of experience that Nieuwenhuys tried to make concrete, and that the McCoys understand of the cinema as a space of personal engagement.

the art of databasing

The role of the computer is also highlighted in both works. Lev Manovich in his 2001 The Language of New Media writes, “After the novel, and subsequently cinema, privileged narrative as the key form of cultural expression of the modern age, the computer age introduces its correlate—the database.” Throughout their practice the McCoys have constantly examined ideas of narrative mechanisms as structure rather than story.

In their Every Shot, Every Episode, 10,000 shots from the Starsky and Hutch series are databased into key categories—every sexy outfit, every yellow Volkswagen for example. In Traffic and also The Constant World the computer controls the stitching together of shots behind the scenes, turning the narrative into a database stripped of the passage of time and the logical connection of ideas.

Just as the McCoys create through their practice windows onto wider aspects of the moving image, so BFI Southbank is exploring new forms of exhibition, presentation and preservation and, in the attempt, polishing up a somewhat dated image. Interestingly, the building itself will become unusable by 2012 when new tramlines are planned for Waterloo Bridge—the pressure is on to develop a significant national film centre. Perhaps it is the temporary nature of the space that has allowed the BFI to be a little riskier and explore the edges of moving image culture.

The next artist to be featured in the gallery is Australia’s Lynette Wallworth, commissioned to create two new works in her Hold: Vessel series to stand alongside the widely travelled 2001 orginal. As a living archive of a changing ecosystem, the new projections record how certain marine environments have altered significantly in recent years. The exhibition will run from June 23 until the end of August and follows on from Wallworth’s premiere UK solo exhibition now showing at National Glass Centre, Sunderland


See RealTime 79 (June-July) for an interview with Lynette Wallworth.

Jennifer & Kevin McCoy, Tiny, Funny, Big and Sad, curator Michael Connor, BFI Southbank, London, March 14-May 28, www.bfi.org.uk; www.mccoyspace.com

RealTime issue #78 April-May 2007 pg. 8

© Fabienne Nicholas; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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