Separate but equal

The DLR went to one of the Secret Cinemas last night: large-scale events that take over disused London sites, and create live versions of films, which they subsequently screen (on video projection). This one had French soldiers processing tickets — in the form of ID papers –, Arab-speaking women in white, French people dancing the chacha, a re-creation of a torture site and illicit Islamic marriage ceremonies. The film, of course, was The Battle of Algiers, one particularly relevant in the current context of the Arab Spring: if you haven’t seen it, the liberation of Algeria is effected not by the guerrilla tactics of the FLN (Front Libération Nationale) but by an almost spontaneous mass uprising two years after the FLN’s fall (which is not to say the FLN did not prepare the ground).

Brahim Hadjadj as Ali La Pointe in The Battle of Algiers. According to this photo, La Pointe was either an angry, independence-minded revolutionary or a contemporary dancer. It's so hard to tell in today's crazy, mixed-up world.

Leaving aside the politics for a moment, let’s talk about these large-scale events — apparently sponsored by the Guardian and not cheap at £35 a pop — and how they differ from the work of visual artists doing a similar thing in the contemporary arts field. Mike Nelson, who is representing Britain at this year’s Venice Biennale, flooded Modern Art Oxford with sand to re-create a partially buried woodshed, and created a labyrinthine madman’s laboratory within the stalls at a past Frieze Art Fair.

Christoph Büchel a few years ago turned a space off Brick Lane into a vast archaeology site (here is a review by the excellent Dan Fox) and at the Glasgow Festival last year turned the enormous Tramway building into a warren of undefined sites of menace (images here) — a huge exploded plane, hospital waiting rooms, potential terrorist cells. And the ‘community centre‘ that is going to open in two weeks on Piccadilly will be none other than Büchel’s latest project (the site is simply his gallery, Hauser & Wirth, which is removing its signage); its plan is to be fully functioning. We are curious.

Well, one major difference is that in the Secret Cinema you are meant to interact with the actors and the site (you can also buy food and drinks), while the Büchel works, despite differing from a sculpture-on-a-plinth model, are still within the framework of expensive art that is not meant to be touched, and rather is meant to be preserved (so optimistic, this belief. Like shopfronts that say ‘Trading since 2010’). Accordingly there is more weight placed on the objects in Buchel’s work, which are very effective in their ability to contain a narrative. The plane at Tramway did speak of danger, death and horror, despite being a bit bombastic as an installation in toto. And of course the Secret Cinema is entertainment; their designs are different. Yet we might identify a shared concern not just in spectacle between the two, but in a desire to fragment the spectacle — to make the experience of viewing art or viewing a film a personal, individual one, and one which will be only ever partially accessible. (There is a great article by Hito Steyerl on viewing films in former factories and museums (which are often the same) that discusses this here.) Having only a fragment available to you is one way of underwriting the authenticity of the ‘experience’, in the Secret Cinema, fun-house experience way — obviously, if you were in Algiers, you wouldn’t have seen all the events that take place in the film — and in this regard the fragmentation has some parallels to what the nouveaux romanciers were doing with novels in mid-20th-century France (that is, doing away with the omniscient narrator), but it also does away with the collective experience of watching film that has been at the centre of cinema’s ability to form communities. In Secret Cinema, as in Büchel’s gigantic installations, and to a lesser extent Nelson’s, we are all experiencing the same thing, but separately. We have traded response as a social group for individual reactions to a work that is always in process, never finalised and different for each participant — not better or worse necessarily, but, when thinking of film and art as social art forms, definitely different to how they’ve previously functioned.

The Secret Cinema website says TELL NO ONE in its very heading, but they have a website (and reviews all over the shop) so we’ll link to it as they are really very good, these productions. We also think they might be good pick-up places. Which is a very good way of watching separate individuals come together in the end.

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