York film prof launches new book with rare film screenings

A new book – Fluid Screens, Expanded Cinema – edited by York Canada Research Chair in Art & Digital Media Janine Marchessault and Queen’s University Professor Susan Lord (PhD ‘99) explores how digital technology is transforming contemporary visual culture while keeping in mind the historical context of emerging media.

A launch and film screening for the book will take place on Thursday, Feb. 7, in the ballroom of the Gladstone Hotel, 1214 Queen St. West, Toronto, at 7pm. Six rarely seen experimental film shorts from the 1960s and 1970s, programmed by the Department of Film’s Professor Michael Zryd, will be screened as part of the launch.

Fluid Screens, Expanded Cinema (University of Toronto Press, 2007) uses Gene Youngblood’s book Expanded Cinema (P. Dutton & Co., Inc., New York, 1970) as its anchor while exploring the emergence of digital technology as an experience of space and time tied to capitalism. Fluid Screens frames a wide range of social justice issues with aesthetic theories of digital screen culture in a way that will appeal to scholars and artists alike.

"The idea of expanded cinema was developed in the 1960s with the film screen itself becoming part of the film performance, interacting with reality in new ways," said Marchessault, who teaches in the Graduate Program in Film and is director of the Visible City Project – examining creative industries and artists’ cultures across several cities – in York’s Faculty of Fine Arts.

"Fluid screens is a new reality today tied in with digital technology. There are screens everywhere, they’re extending out and becoming more ubiquitous and they are all networked in some way, but they did not emerge out of nowhere. These screens have historical antecedents," said Marchessault. "The digital is situated in the 1990s culture with the Internet, but in fact it was bubbling up in the post-war period. The new digital sphere grows out of experiments with radio and television in the 1960s and 1970s."

The thing with technology is that it’s constantly changing; it’s fluid. "New technology is a moving target. You can’t really engage with the new technology without understanding the historical context of its production," said Marchessault. "The past helps us to understand the present context of constant technological change and obsolescence."

That’s why Marchessault chose to examine the history of today’s new media, while exploring where media technology is heading. Marchessault, the author of McLuhan: Cosmic Media (Sage Publications, 2005), believes Canada has a distinct approach to media studies extending back to Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), an inspiration for Fluid Screens, Expanded Cinema. And so, most of the book’s contributors – renowned scholars in film theory, communication studies, cultural studies and new media – are Canadian. Four of the contributors are affiliated with York.

Right: Janine Marchessault

"Marshall McLuhan really experimented with all different media," said Marchessault. McLuhan: Cosmic Media examines why McLuhan’s views on media, art and culture are still relevant today.

Marchessault says today’s emerging technology needs to be placed within a historical context. She points to the many experiments with media that took place at Expo ‘67 in Montreal and how that, along with McLuhan, helped to shape the present course of new media and our sense of time and place.

The film screening program at the launch is curated by Zryd and coordinated by York PhD candidate Ya-Yin Ko. The shorts are a mix of 16mm Canadian and US films from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s. Each plays with the metaphor of the fluid screen or embodies the utopian historical moment of expanded cinema. They are:

  • Canadian Pacific and Canadian Pacific II (1974-75, David Rimmer, Canada, 16mm double screen projection, colour, silent, 9 min)
  • Allures (1970, Jordan Belson, US, 16mm, colour, sound, 8 min)
  • Blue Movie (1970, David Rimmer, Canada, 16mm, colour, silent, 6 min)
  • Piece Mandala/End War (1966, Paul Sharits, US, 16mm, colour, silent, 5 min)
  • Water Sark (1966, Joyce Wieland, Canada, 16mm, colour, sound, 14 min)
  • Viet-Flakes (1966, Carolee Schneemann, US, 16mm, b/w, sound, 11 min)

David Rimmer’s Canadian Pacific is a double-screen projection, expanding cinema from its conventional rectangle. Rimmer’s Blue Movie was originally screened in a geodesic dome while Jordan Belson’s Allures was projected at planetariums. Paul Sharits experimented with early sculptural projections. His Piece Mandala/End War is screened in homage. Joyce Wieland finds fluid frames within frames in Water Sark. The program concludes with Carolee Schneemann’s Viet-Flakes, an anti-war film she incorporated into her 1967 stage and electronic media performance, Snows.

Fluid Screens, Expanded Cinema is also tied into two other York projects: Canada and the Films of Expo ’67, which York Professor Seth Feldman, director of the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies, is working on, and the Future Cinema Lab: New Stories for New Screens in the Digital Age involving York Professors John Greyson and Caitlin Fisher, Canada Research Chair in Digital Culture, as well as Marchessault.

The Future Cinema Lab explores different screen technology and how new narratives can develop across the screen and experiments with a variety of new technology. It will be the first dedicated lab of its kind in Canada, consisting of three networked facilities: a multi-use high-definition production unit, a high-definition post-production facility and an augmented reality and mobile media studio with motion capture and 3D scanning capabilities.

The lab’s purpose is to investigate how new storytelling techniques can critically transform a diverse array of state-of-the-art screens: video curtains and fog screens; augmented reality and GPS-enabled handhelds; holo-screens; and digital business cards. The lab will look at how these new technologies transform conventional experiences of fiction creation. It will enable the study of digital storytelling practices in both field and studio research. The Future Cinema Lab received $399,971 in infrastructure funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation in 2006.

Canada and the Films of Expo ’67 is looking at eight multi-screen films from Expo ’67 that challenged cinema production technology of the time, modes of screening and audience perception of films. Some of the questions this project addresses are: Where do these films fit in the history and understanding of new communication technologies? What place do these films have in Canadian documentary and experimental cinema? In what sense did the Expo films reflect the development of Canadian cultural citizenship and Canada’s imagining of itself as a nation in an international context? Canada and the Films of Expo ’67 received a funding grant in 2007 from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council fo Canada.

Marchessault is the past president of the Film Studies Association of Canada and has published widely on film and digital media technologies. She has edited several anthologies, including Mirror Machine: Video and Identity (YYZ, 1995); Gendering the Nation: Canadian Women Filmmakers (UTP, 1999); and Wild Science: Reading Feminism, Science and the Media (Routledge, 2000).

For more information, e-mail Janine Marchessault at jmarches@yorku.ca.

For more information about the book launch and film screening, contact publicist Andrea-Jo Wilson at 416-978-2239, ext. 248 or by e-mail at awilson@utpress.utoronto.ca.

By Sandra McLean, York communications officer.