The Ethics of Presenting Film-Based Work: Reflections on a Study Day with Curator Dan Kidner, Wysing Arts Centre

April 26, 2016

“ Viewing film .. in a gallery setting largely always occurs in a state of distraction”.  Countering this passive experience was a central concern of Kidner’s ambitious, recent exhibition of experimental film ‘The Inoperative Community’ presented at Raven Row, London:  one he discussed at Wysing Arts Centre’s Study Day.

This comment immediately prompted thoughts and discussion about critical issues surrounding duty of care to artworks by those tasked with mediating them. An audience largely formed of curators and artists noted such care engrained in the Latin root of the word ‘curator’.  Recent conversations with artists have often highlighted this tenant, largely in reference to it being somewhat lacking, within the artist/institution dynamic.

Intrigued by Kidner’s remarks and building upon one of these conversations with an artist who works largely with video presentation, I ask him if he feels galleries had become lazy in their presentation of film. An affirmative ‘yes’ was his succinct reply and in that moment, I felt part of this common curatorial failure.

Indeed, Kidner claimed his project ‘The Inoperative Community’ was an experiment in terms of what is possible when galleries show a group exhibition of this medium. It was with great consideration and attention to detail that the conditions of viewing of the works- both singularly and collectively, were put to the test. With a roster of artists including notaries of experimental film including Jon-Luc Godard, Albert Serra and the more recently profiled Luke Fowler and with lengths of films up to eight hours, ‘The Inoperative Community’ was no straightforward attempt at presenting film. Free from awkward looped screenings or a standardised headset attached to a monitor, the relationship between artwork and audience was clearly foregrounded.

To this end, specific conditions conducive to the viewing of each film were considered. Such conditions included both content and context of viewing: from the agreed edit of the film, the timings and programming of each film, to specially designed layout and furniture to enable the best possible experience for visitors.  The exhibition was structured to encouraged total immersion and complete viewing of all the films programmed and in doing so, Kidner sent out a challenging directive to audiences.

 Kidner’s directive created unusual demands in terms of behavioural patterns of the exhibition’s visitors. Keen to understand responses to his presentation and whether they may shift as a result, Raven Row’s gallery assistants kept diaries of visitor viewing habits under the curator’s instruction. What became clear was that by setting out a clear proposition and inviting audiences to be challenged altered viewing habits. Visitors were prepared to spend greater time with the films watching them from start to finish, with many returning to take advantage of the generous programme.

 This was no empty or removed proposition from Kidner. He maintained his curatorial responsibility to caring for these films throughout the exhibition run, checking the conditions had not changed for each work daily. ‘The Inoperative Community’ was a bold curatorial project. And whilst few galleries may have Raven Row’s capacity to invest in the exhibition design for example, or have such a responsive audience, the ethics and intentions can be more widely considered and implemented on different registers. Such due diligence to artworks and audience is one we can all learn from.

Working Together: The Impact of Artists on Institutions. Organised by Wysing Arts Centre on behalf of Contemporary Visual Arts Network, East