FLANEUSE IN ‘THEATRES THE SPECTACLE’
- A media-installation presented at Nandan Art Gallery, Kala Bhavan, Visva Bharati, Santiniketan, between 3rd and 5th February 2011.
- Organized by the Women’s Studies Centre, Santiniketan.
- Described as the ‘first media-installation’ in Santiniketan, the exhibition was inaugurated by art historian and Professor of history Ratnabali Chatterjee, and the programme was presided by Professor Pankaj Panwar, Principal, Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan.
- While eminent artist like K. G. Subramanyan attended the show and appreciated the work, cultural activists, film society persons as well as students and professors of the Art History (and other) department joined in the closing session with Madhuja Mukherjee on 5th February.
Theatres of Spectacle
I sat by the fireside dreaming of days long ago,/ And pictures seemed to form in the midst of the ember’s glow/….I left the dying firelight…
I entered as in a dream./ I entered into darkness, but sudden, before my eyes/ On a curtain of white, came pictures and I stared in mute surprise,/ Pictures that world! In wonderment I quite forgot my pain./ Pictures that lived! And with them I lived my youth again.
‘A Western Woman’s Opinion of Pictures’
(Hattie M. Loble, 1912)
The idea of a media-installation emerged from diverse experiences of writing on films, making films, constantly groping with archival material and trying to come up with graphic stories, image essays, videos, etc. Moreover, over the years my interest in cinema has been connected to its historical significance and the narratives of its making as well as its distribution-exhibition networks. In fact, one of the lacunae of Indian Film Studies has been its over emphasis on the image and the text, as we selectively looked at the body of the films cutting it off from its production-distribution-exhibition arms. However, the multiple dimensions of cinema and its cultural ramifications seem to demand a new way of presentation. The installation grew from a long drawn research on glass negatives and advertisements of films. The project began in 2004, and since then I have been working on hundreds of negative images inscribed on glass, which are largely publicity material that include posters, lobby cards, brochures, song books, working stills, advertisement slides etc., from the 1940s to 1960s. Largely found with a private collector and other sources, the initial process was to retrieve the lost negatives by meticulously scanning those and afterwards turning the images into positive and identify the same. A comprehensive catalogue was produced for the new material. What at the outset appeared like black and white abstract paintings surfaced mostly as lobby cards as well as posters, stills and so on, of both well-known and obscure films. Therefore, the scanning of such rare glass negatives was not merely a matter of mechanical transformation; rather it was like excavating an archaeological site and traversing through the tracks of history, memory and narrations.
In my opinion, such material needs to be examined not as elements of street cultures (or as posters and hoardings); but as objects, which evoke memories of specific spaces (the dark room of the cinema halls, the theatre lobby etc.) as well as bring together fragments of light, colours, and sounds. The installation tried to evoke the idea of cinema as an event, and not how good or bad films function. Indeed, the experience of cinema outside the texts produces its own meanings and reminiscences. Moreover, the processes of display of these publicity objects / lobby cards are deeply connected to notions of theatres as public domain. Eventually, the question of gender became crucial in the context, as I flipped through the images and examined the patterns in which the female body is positioned or the ways in which the face of the star addressed an imagined male audience. The repetitiveness of the gestures became noteworthy, along with the use of light, the demure ‘look at me’ expression, the visibility of the three-quarter of the face etc.
‘Theatres of Spectacle’, is about women inside cinemas (halls) and how they encounter spectacular images. The media installation is an abstraction of the environment of theatres, the processes through which women negotiate such locations of display. The milieu of the theatres – the winding stairways, the big mirrors, the echo of voices, the half-public, half private dark hall, the toilet, etc. – was reproduced by projecting moving-images and noises and by strategically putting up posters, lobby cards etc. In fact, while cinematic spaces on one hand are dominated by big close-ups attractive stars, on the other, real women mostly have limited access to such spaces because of the manner in which these domains are controlled by masculine parameters. The installation hoped to intervene within the social norms of ‘being in the theatre’ and the subject of ‘seeing and being seen’, by presenting an audiovisual material in a space that has its own long history of visual cultures.
All the planes of the empty cube / room were used. As we entered we came across luminous images of ‘the shining stars’ (in boxes) hanging against dark walls, placed at various levels. This (ideally) forced the viewer to walk through the pictures and participate in the processes of image-making and become a ‘participant-observer’. The audio-visual (28 mins. approx) screened on the left commented on modes of film-viewing and on the right there were huge mirrors, which presented distorted reflections of the onlookers as well as the entire space, thereby challenged structures of perspective. The floor was covered with a huge collage (vinyl print) created from the images of sets and photographs of cinema halls, while scribbles and red arrows on the floor remarked on the memories of viewing. Moreover, film-strips hanged mysteriously in the middle, while in one corner stood a solitary door of a ladies toilet (shut from inside) that entailed a host of untold stories. Opposite this was a zone that presented hushed voices and whispers recorded in the theatres. Lights were used strategically to emphasize the details.
Besides exhibiting the valuable archival material, one of major concerns of the installation was to re-visit the notion of flaneur (the archetypal observer, who traverses the city with an ironic pose). However, to quote Janet Wolff (1985), “The flaneur’s freedom to wander at will through the city is essentially a masculine freedom. Thus, the very idea of the flaneur reveals it to be a gendered concept….There could never be a female flaneur: the flaneuse was invisible”. Nevertheless, I also wanted to show at how at the turn of the twentieth century cinema transformed urban tastes and study the routes through which the ‘theatre’ (like the salons and the café) could be a half-private, half-public space, where women could possibly sit through comfortably (in groups). Although one may argue that, all this was for pleasure, yet such leisure offered the enjoyment of looking, bonding or simply walking. Perhaps, in the theatres “a woman too, could become a flaneur” (Elizabeth Wilson, 1995), and she too could join urban mass cultures.
Brooker and Deborah (ed.) 2003. Audience Studies Reader. London/NY: Routledge.
Jenks, Chris (ed.) 2004. Urban Culture, Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies. London/NY: Routledge.
Lant and Periz (ed.) 2008. Red Velvet Seat, Women’s Writings on the First fifty Years of Cinema. London/NY: Verso.
This installation emerges from my research done under the Independent Fellowship from Sarai (CSDS, Delhi) 2004, and the JU Research Grant, 2008-2010.
I am indebted to Sanjeet Chowdhury, Indraneel Lahiri, Nupur Mullick and Avik Mukhopadhyay.