by Carly Whitefield
As traditional modes of cinematic exhibition give way to new forms of performative intervention and presentation, a certain sense of circularity comes into view. Increasingly featured in the programmes of cinematheques and international film festivals, the lecture performance has emerged as a contemporary paradigm for performative practice in artists’ cinema, marking a pronounced shift away from the aesthetic and material concerns grounding expanded cinema performance. In a manner akin to—if not entirely indiscernible from—the public or academic lecture, these performances foreground the central agency of the artist in visual mediation. This live staging not only signals a displacement of the models of production, reception, and distribution associated with cinema, but marks a return to one its earliest forms of practice.
While the recent mobilisation of the lecture performance in contemporary artists’ cinema must be regarded within the context of its resurgence and more widespread adoption in contemporary art over the past fifteen years, the lecture has much longer trajectory in historical forms of cinematic presentation. Initially gaining prominence in the phantasmagoric séances of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the proto-cinematic practice of the magic lantern performance began to encompass more didactic functions as its popularity spread with the development of new forms of electric illumination and photographic technologies. Magic lantern lectures took up topics as diverse as astronomy, current events, religion, and art history. Though spectral performances largely gave way to illustrated lectures and more theatrical or comedic productions by the mid- nineteenth century, the recognition of projection’s affinity with reanimation in phantasmagoric performance had prompted several experiments in the production of moving images. Towards the end of the century, innovative forms of animation used in magic lantern lectures—most famously those of Eadweard Muybridge—began to lay the foundation for an emerging cinematic sensibility.
Though the invention of the cinematographic apparatus rendered the magic lantern performance relatively obsolete by the turn of the twentieth century, the presentational model furnished by its travelling showmen remained a key part of cinematic culture in its inception. As a fairground attraction, barkers were employed to draw in crowds to experience the new technology. Cinema’s subsequent shift from the milieu of the fairground to the space of the theatre created new conditions of spectatorship and prompted the production of longer films and more complex narratives. To attract bourgeois classes to the hitherto plebeian form, these narratives were often translated from literary and theatrical texts. These adaptations proved largely incomprehensible to audiences accustomed to dialogue as an intrinsic theatrical experience, and called for the addition of an interpreter. Reinstating the forms of live commentary used in the magic lantern performance, production studios began hiring lecturers to provide introductory context for their films and to narrate storylines and dialogue throughout. Though occasionally employing this narrative power to subversive effect, film lecturers became a necessary part of the apparatus. During this period, screenings became unique performances and lecturers held the bulk of their experiential determination. The movement to standardise narration later saw this explicatory role subsumed to the film proper in the form of the intertitle and, to a great extent, eclipsed the history of cinema’s earlier heterogeneous and live practices. A century later—amidst new concerns for the interpretation of new modes and politics of image production and dissemination—lecturers have once again begun to populate the space of the cinema.
Boillat, A. (2010) ‘The Lecturer, the Image, the Machine and the Audio-Spectator’, Cinema Beyond Film: Media Epistemology in the Modern Era. Edited by Albera, F. and Tortajada, M., translated by Hewson, L. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. pp. 215–232.
Gunning, T. (1994) D.W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film: The Early Years at Biograph. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.
Lacasse, G. (2012) ‘The Film Lecturer’, A Companion to Early Cinema, Edited by Gaudreault, A., Dulac, N, and Hidalgo, S. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 487–97.