Melanie Counsell

Under the aegis of a facile appropriation of Foucauldian theory, artists continue to busy themselves with the task of. literally and limply paraphrasing the social history of “site.” In far too many of these well-intentioned esthetico-archaeological projects not even the worthy recovery of a significant, albeit marginalized, past can mitigate their blandness nor justify their numbing effects. With all this in mind I can’t say that I didn’t approach Melanie Counsell’s installation with a great deal of skepticism. Sited in a dank cinema in a working-class neighborhood of London’s East End, the project seemed to be positively awash in social significance. From its inception as a music hall, supporting the type of burlesque entertainment treasured by the Irish and English working classes, to its subsequent refurbishment as a grand cinema, the Coronet’s history is inscribed as a recurring series of boom-and-bust cycles. The critical impulse is to ground the Coronet cinema as an index for all sorts of social, political, and cultural transformations. But the history of the Coronet is a fairly unremarkable bit of urban economic history, incapable of sustaining such weight: the multiplication of referents collapses into a kind of reduction—from cinema to “site”; from history of site to popular culture’s locus of struggle.

Such an allegory is not without persuasive power. The place truly is a wreck and the public, one imagines, likes a good story to help the art go down. Despite the overwhelming urge to buy into this packaging of Counsell, there is something to be said for putting aside this unwieldy mass of spectacular and facile social iconography in favor of a more formal, certainly less fashionable, interpretive discourse.

For Counsell, the success of her installations often hinges on the possibility of constructing a convincing rebuttal to our art-perceiving expectations. The presumed picturesqueness of the Coronet cinema is less significant to our appreciation of Counsell’s work than the simple fact that she retains and exploits its function as a theater. While the two issues are not easily separable under certain interpretive readings, Counsell seems to be suggesting the domination of the formal and experiential over the ideological.

Upon entering the cinema, one was directed up a stairway and through the mezzanine foyer by a series of inspection lamps strung along the floor. One then reached the auditorium, pitch black save for the guide lights and the glow of what seemed to be the cinema screen. The normal line of sight to the screen was interrupted by Counsell’s placement of a wall of ribbed glass, which distorted the projection, reducing it to a play of light and shadow. In order to view the film normally, one had to carry on to the uppermost rows of the balcony. It seemed as though the cinema screen had been replaced with a large white sheet. The projection, equally dismal and makeshift, was a silent black and white 16 millimeter film of a dark-colored liquid evaporating from a crystal goblet. As the spectator ascended, not only did a restitution of the projected image occur, but another, differing set of temporal demands made their presence felt. One settled in for the period of necessary accommodation not only to adjust one’s eyes to the significantly lower level of light in the theater, but also to attend to the doleful pace of the film’s “action.” It is most fruitful to conceive of Counsell’s installation as a general statement on the conditions under which all artistic site-interventions must be enacted. Where the spectacular appropriation of a site’s history may be impeded, a metacritical perspective on the morality attending excavation begins—a prior and far more urgent artistic task, which Counsell’s work seems to be increasingly eager and capable of tackling.

Michael Corris