New York

Stan VanDerBeek, Movie Mural, 1968, 35-mm slides, hand-drawn scroll, slide projectors, overhead projector, multiple 35-mm and 16-mm films transferred to video, sound. Installation view. Photo: Chandra Glick.

Stan VanDerBeek, Movie Mural, 1968, 35-mm slides, hand-drawn scroll, slide projectors, overhead projector, multiple 35-mm and 16-mm films transferred to video, sound. Installation view. Photo: Chandra Glick.

“Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905–2016”

Whitney Museum of American Art

Stan VanDerBeek, Movie Mural, 1968, 35-mm slides, hand-drawn scroll, slide projectors, overhead projector, multiple 35-mm and 16-mm films transferred to video, sound. Installation view. Photo: Chandra Glick.

INSIDE THE LUMINOUS ROOMS of “Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905–2016,” numerous screens, sounds, and curatorial proposals compete for attention, bleeding into one another in an expansive and ambitious venture. As curator Chrissie Iles states in her catalogue essay, “This is not a show about cinema,” nor is it a show about immersion per se. It is, however, many other things: an exhibition of conceptual sprawl that skips around from the historical avant-garde to the internet and in between, skimming across animation, digitization, synesthesia, and interactions between the body and technology—all while testifying to the substantial and persistent challenges in successfully displaying the moving image in a museum setting.

In the exhibition’s historical anchor, Edwin S. Porter’s two-minute film Coney Island at Night (1905), the Dreamlands amusement park is illuminated in the darkness, foregrounding the connection between the cinema and turn-of-the-century fairground entertainments as experiential technologies of shock and sensation. Indeed, although Coney Island at Night is the only explicit gesture in “Dreamlands” to early cinema, the notion of exhibitionist spectacle—a key characteristic that differentiates the pre-1907 period (“the cinema of attractions,” as Tom Gunning defined it) from the voyeuristic cinema of narrative integration that would develop after—is strong throughout. Pre-, anti-, and postclassical cinema join together, united in their shared emphasis on bodily address and the rejection of storytelling. This makes for some strange bedfellows: The notion of the “attraction” resonates rather differently in Anthony McCall’s Line Describing a Cone, 1973, than it does in the dancing anime avatars of Hito Steyerl’s Factory of the Sun, 2015, or the lo-fi 3-D of Trisha Baga’s Flatlands, 2010. And yet one can discern in this genealogy a proposition as to what the history of cinema might look like if it expunged the literary to pursue instead alliances with music, sculpture, painting, and, yes, amusement parks and shopping malls.

Why spurn narrative? It has, after all, been a major component of artists’ engagements with the moving image in the last quarter-century, to say nothing of a wider history of cinema. Perhaps Iles has renounced it out of a questionable if widespread conviction that narrative leads to an inherent spectatorial passivity, out of a desire to challenge its historical dominance, or as a wager that its teleology renders it better suited for exhibition in the movie theater. (Though “Dreamlands” does offer an extensive series of screenings in the Whitney’s black-box theater, as well as an off-site program of expanded-cinema events, these are not under consideration here.) Whatever the motivation, “Dreamlands” pits the excluded term of narrative against a tactile, spatialized experience of media in which the conventions of linear viewing and linear perspective no longer apply. In Josiah McElheny’s Projection Painting II, 2015, reworked footage from Maya Deren’s unfinished 1951 film Ensemble for Somnambulists is projected on a framed, glass-covered, low-relief prismatic surface so as to be distorted beyond recognition. Multiple screens create engulfing surroundings that overturn cinematic frontality, as in Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie Mural, 1968, Alex Da Corte and Jayson Musson’s Easternsports, 2014, and Dora Budor’s Adaptation of an Instrument, 2016. Taken as a whole, the exhibition itself enacts these gestures at a meta level, as the visitor is set to wander within an eighteen-thousand-square-foot audiovisual phantasmagoria.

If “Dreamlands” conceives of its visitor’s body as pleasurably adrift in a technological wonderland, the representations of the body found within particular works suggest something very different. “Dreamlands” consistently returns to the figures of the automaton and the cyborg, positioning them as exemplary of a gendered encounter between technology and humanity that fixates on the body of the woman as a site of anxiety and desire. This line of the exhibition begins with the figurines of Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet, 1922, here anachronistically yet seductively presented in a candy-colored made-for-television performance from 1970. It continues through Syd Mead’s early 1980s designs for Blade Runner’s world of replicants, Lynn Hershman Leeson’s cyborgs, and the many iterations of the anime character Annlee in Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno’s No Ghost Just a Shell (1999–2002), a science-fiction parable of uncanny embodiment and intellectual property. A twenty-first-century commodity-character devoid of interiority, Annlee was purchased cheaply by the artists for use in a series of works by collaborators including Rirkrit Tiravanija (Ghost Reader C.H., 2002) and Liam Gillick (Annlee You Proposes, 2001), with all nine of the resulting videos on display here. (Missing are the many nonvideo works associated with the project.)

The sprinkling of No Ghost Just a Shell videos throughout the space also figures as the telos of a third proposal: “Dreamlands” foregrounds the contemporary ubiquity of animation and the increasing move away from the contingencies of lens-based capture. The miraculous acheiropoieton—the image produced without the intervention of the human hand—has given way to the nonindexical animated image, now dominant after its longtime marginalization. Computer-assisted imaging techniques proliferate, instituting a regime in which every pixel is available for specification. “Dreamlands” points to this shift, cutting across analog and digital technologies to suggest a genealogy of the moving image founded in the anarchic freedoms and fantasies of movement untethered from gravity and photography alike. The interest in synesthesia and visual music found in the three-screen reconstruction of Oskar Fischinger’s Raumlichtkunst (Space Light Art, 1926/2012) extends through the preparatory drawings for Disney’s Fantasia (1940) to Jenny Perlin’s Twilight Arc (2016), a hand-drawn 16-mm animation exploring the history of the color organ. Probing the industrial determinations of the animated image like No Ghost Just a Shell, Mathias Poledna’s Imitation of Life, 2013, is an enchanting 35-mm homage to 1930s Disney. It points at once to the animistic pleasures of what Sergei Eisenstein called the “plasmatic” transformations of the animated image and to the labor of production. Ian Cheng’s live simulation Baby feat. Ikaria, 2013, renders three chatbots conversing as a swirl of ever-mutating abstract shapes on a vertical screen leaning against the wall.

In its buzzy atmosphere of screen-saturated distraction, “Dreamlands” suggests that we are to view the flight into what Iles calls an “interplanar cinematic environment” as a kind of liberation, an exciting advance, or at least an enjoyable experience that stimulates the whole body with images often unfettered by any adherence to physical reality. There is an established tradition of claiming an oppositional value for the haptic visuality frequently on view here; film scholar Laura U. Marks, for instance, aligns the distanced legibility of the optical regime with Cartesian fantasies of mastery, and the proximate sensuality of the haptic with an ethics of intimacy, contact, and embodiment. But what happens when the haptic becomes hegemonic, as it has in this era of touch screens, VR, motion sensors, and ubiquitous multimedia environments?

This is just one of several crucial questions the exhibition raises but never addresses. Is the cyborg a threat to human authenticity or does it offer a powerful emblem of a nonessentialist feminist politics? And what are the implications of the anthropocentric perfections of CGI replacing photographic capture as a dominant mode of worldmaking? “Dreamlands” is little concerned with such sociopolitical stakes. If any position can be discerned, it is a blithe adherence to the well-worn rhetoric of emancipation from the disciplinary regime of the traditional cinematic dispositif—a stance that without doubt has long been in need of serious revision, particularly since it fails to take account of the fact that new media propose new means of training the sensorium. Even if issues of gender, surveillance, and financialization very occasionally peek through in individual works in the show, “Dreamlands” is ultimately formalist in emphasis.

The exhibition is interested most in novel reconfigurations of the apparatus for their own sake and hesitant to confront their larger resonances. But how could it, given its gallimaufry of themes? Iles’s landmark 2001 survey “Into the Light: The Projected Image in American Art 1964–1977,” also at the Whitney, was a major intervention that brought artists such as McCall and Paul Sharits to belated prominence and set an international agenda for the years that followed. In the time that has elapsed since, the moving image has achieved unprecedented recognition as an art form, in no small part due to Iles’s efforts. Especially given the new demands of this changed landscape, it is unfortunate that “Dreamlands” abandons two interrelated strategies that served Iles so well in “Into the Light”: painstaking research and a sharply honed focus. It’s not for nothing that “Less is more” has become a cliché. “Dreamlands” attempts to chart a terrain so mammoth—extending far beyond the institution’s American mandate—that the rationale for the selection of works and the relationships between them are at times tenuous. And yet many pieces share at least one thing in common: They have recently been on view in the New York area (some previously at the Whitney). Is Rose Hobart a cyborg? Hardly. But why else would Joseph Cornell’s film be included? (And why presented so awkwardly?) In “Dreamlands,” everything connects with everything else—even when it doesn’t—in an unwieldy manner that tends to flatten distinctions that might better be highlighted.

There are several possible exhibitions latent within “Dreamlands,” any one of which could have been very rich. The show’s remarkable title is an evocative condensation of associations, bridging psychic life, popular entertainment, commodity capitalism, and public experience. This nexus is precisely what makes the moving image so fascinating as an art form—but doing it justice means understanding the disassembly and reassembly of cinema as more than just an opportunity for formal play.

“Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905–2016” is on view through Feb. 5.

Erika Balsom, a senior lecturer in film studies and liberal arts at King’s College London, is the author of Exhibiting Cinema in Contemporary Art (Amsterdam University Press, 2013).