Between the Black Box and the White Cube: Expanded Cinema and Post War Art
by Andrew V. Uroskie
University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2014
288 pp. illus, 100 b/w Trade, $90; paper, $30
ISBN: 978-0-226-84298-1; ISBN: 978-0-226-84298-8.
Reviewed by Amanda Egbe
University of Plymouth
Between the Black Box and the White Cube sets out to recover what Uroskie sees as the origins of expanded cinema in post war moving image strategies. The recovery of such practices and strategies are seen as a necessary task in order to better understand the renewed interest of moving image work in the gallery environment. The title refers to the contested models of spectatorship that are outlined as the theatrical model of the cinema that is the black box and the white cube of the art gallery. The book puts forward a model for not only understanding the cinematic as present in aspects of post war art, but more importantly, he positions the question of understanding that cinematic imperative as a question of the move from material specificity to site and situation. The book has as its main concern this neglected approach to expanded cinema that Uroskie sees as necessary to recover in order that we more fully understand and can conceive of practices of showing in a gallery context. Uroskie elucidates the work of a number of what he notes as forgotten artists of the 1950s and 1960s and repositions the work of better-known artists. This return to expanded cinema provides for the reader of film studies and art history a bridge from which the arrival of increasing amounts of moving image work in the gallery context can be viewed from the renewed perspective of site specificity, asking not what is cinema, but where?
Uroskie builds his argument from an examination of the history of multi-screen presentations that he terms as industrial expanded cinema, such as Francis Thompson and Alexander Hammid’s film, which was exhibited at the New York World’s Fair in 1964, To Be Alive! Uroskie notes that this type of non- radical expanded cinema was characterised not by its concern for immersion; rather, its forte was in overloading the newly construed active subject with data. Resisting Gene Youngblood’s notion of expanded cinema formulated as the aesthetics of technology opening up new consciousness, Uroskie wants to divulge a tradition that situates itself away from the European art cinema and the structural avant-garde. The exposition begins with the Lettrist rehabilitation of Dada and their opening up of the moving image experience as one of assemblages and re-combinations of audio-visual material to avail the audience with a model of cinematic situation.
Between the Black Box and the White Cube moves through the notion of the moving image in the gallery context by bringing to the fore the work of Robert Breer, Robert Whitman, and Andy Warhol in successive chapters. Each artist develops approaches in Uroskie’s reading that reposition the spectator. Breer’s animations and use of pre-cinematic apparatus, such as the mutoscope or the flipbook, allow for the spectator to create movement rather than passively viewing. Whitman’s work utilising performance and screen, highlighted by his work with Cage and Cunningham, provides a model of assemblage that also changed the relationship of the spectator to what was being viewed. The work of Warhol focuses on his use of video, screen, and tape recordings; however, it is the factory like Vanderbeek’s Movie-Drome, that helps qualify Uroskie’s central repositioning of expanded cinema as dislocated, being neither in the cinema nor in the gallery.
The book's last recovery is that of the artist Ken Dewey whose work fused photography, slides, sound, performance and moving image work that did not seek the idea of media coherence. Expanded cinema's importance lies in its ability to remove the necessity to see the moving image only as the exhibition model of the cinema auditorium, rather the moving image’s unstableness brought about by its dispostif, that include apparatus, viewer, industrialisation, opens up a different model and ontology of the moving image. For Uroskie the recovery of expanded cinema provides a framework of site and situation for the moving image, his argument bookended by a critique of Rosalind Krauss highlights that expanded cinema undermined the modernist notion of medium specificity and equally provided a challenge to art institutions and practices.
While Between the Black Box and the White Cube provides an interesting chronology of some aspects of expanded cinema in the American tradition, it seems too ready, however, through not dealing with the nuances of experimental and avant-garde strategies––that were situated across the terrains of performance, music and the moving image, concerned with narrative, representation, interaction and technology––to dismiss and force these strategies back into their category of structural, in order to foreground the expanded as another discrete canonical oeuvre. The need to recover the history of expanded cinema from the modernist concerns of medium specificity have been outlined by other writers with a greater deal of examination as to the artists, practices, and concerns that were side-lined for the canonical avant-garde moving image history that he points to. Uroskie is right, however, to point to a need to see the strategies of the avant-garde beyond the narrow concerns of medium and material specificity in order to bring about a greater consideration of the moving image in other contexts outside the auditorium and a deepening of our understanding of what is and how we view the moving image.