Mar 31, 2014

Don't Worry About the End of Film…But Do Continue to Panic

by Rebecca Hernandez-Gerber

Richard Brody’s “Don’t Worry About the End of Film,” offers a refreshing change to the plethora of apocalyptic responses to the digital age of cinema, and yet I feel that it still falls short. It should be commended that this author points out that powerful ideas come through regardless of the medium, a point that seems lost on many that value film as the only true moving image art form, but it is a statement that feels more lip-service to digital auteurs than authentically represented in the blog post.
Whether we like it or not, the death of cinema is upon us. Brody mentions, “Those of us who have known the experience of watching project prints…ought to preserve…the idea of it.” Still, one must question why that is the case? What is it about film that is somehow better than all other mediums? Moving images are moving images, after all. This generation of audiences, and all those that will come in the future, will have no understanding of what film is. They will not, indeed do not currently, care about projected prints. And while I adore the aura of cinema, the fact is that digital projection is reaching a point where it is equal to that of film, perhaps will one day surpass it. Why cling to film? What is the purpose?

It is this sentiment that gives me pause. Yes, Brody’s blog post is better than most, and yes it does point out some important aspects, but it remains yet another piece dedicated to the glory of film without any concreteness to how that glory can be measured. His statements against video, the immediacy of it, are not necessarily true. They are true to him, and to others raised on film, but they are not true to the rest of us. The superiority of film is not self-evident, and those of us that do not agree are not less culturally aware. We simply have a different aesthetic preference, and it is possible we are a little tired of being hit over the head with the superiority of photochemical film over all other moving image media.

Mar 18, 2014

Cinema 16 and the Growth of Descendent Film Societies

by Curtis John

I must admit that despite having a sincere love of film programming that I was grossly unaware of its origins. Putting together what you hope is a solid collection of films and knowing instinctively but not truly knowing in reality whether the audience will truly appreciate it is a difficult thing; it mirrors filmmaking and other arts form in that way – both of which I know from experience.  But even without that familiarity, page after page of Cinema 16’s birth, ending, and inspirations in Scott McDonald’s Cinema 16: Documents Toward a History of the Film Society are illuminating; with that familiarity, it opens up a torrent of ideas of how to do whatever is creatively necessary to establish similar lofty goals.  Personally, the introduction is a bookmark heavy page turner and inspired my future programming goals and desired outcomes, especially with Vogel’s initial notes on how show respect for your audience (while not blindly catering to their every interest) and how to understand your members.   
As important as it was for Vogel and his wife Marcia to achieve their goals of serving a “vast potential audience”[1] with a variety of “simple entertainment with a touch of current events awareness”[2], they deftly realized the political ramifications of controlling the film image and that filmmakers needed a continuous forum to make that clear - their own society.  Even if one did not care for the films at every presentation, and as McDonald expresses this would happen regularly (beyond the arguments between the advocates for avant-garde cinema versus documentary as the focus of Cinema 16) their goal was to be subversive as well as to be dialectical and create “maximum thought – and perhaps action – on the part of the audience”[3] to show the power of film and how it can be used to change society.  But they also got the core of film going, that beyond genre and star worship how it can be, “a means of getting in touch with the immense and fascinating variety in the ways people live and with the myriad ways in which individuals express their inner struggles.”[4]
Past film festivals, which are commonplace now, reading about the array of micro and mobile cinemas in Incite issue #4  that mirror the scope of Cinema 16 and in many respects have grown beyond Vogel and his cohorts vision is very telling for the future of subversive and ultra-indie cinema.  Yes, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and similar groups do this to a more spectacular degree, but in 16’s spirit what’s really subversive about them?
If you haven't, check out the documentary on Amos Vogel, Film as a Subversive Art: Amos Vogel and Cinema 16 made in 1993.  It is having problems loading so just click the link.
- Curtis John

[1] Scott McDonald. Cinema 16: Documents Toward a History of the Film Society (Kindle edition), location 202
[2] McDonald, location 231
[3] McDonald, location 284
[4] McDonald, Location 259

Mar 9, 2014


By: Diana Ritter

From March 5th through March 13th, IFC is presenting Francofest, a “not-even-mid-career survey” of James Franco’s “most notable performances and a sampling of features he has directed.”  On Friday, I attended a TimesTalks with James Franco and Chris O’Dowd, who will be starring in the Broadway play, Of Mice and Men, later this month. When it got time for the Q&A portion,  I had one question in mind for James Franco: With Francofest in full swing, how much input did you provide for the program lineup and was there an argument behind it?  

I have been watching James Franco for nearly 15 years since his days as Daniel Desario on the cult classic Freaks and Geeks, but the only information I had any interest in on Friday night revolved around curating.  Amongst his many “hats” as writer, director, and actor, Franco can now add curator to the list as I would have to guess he played a part in selecting the works that are being shown this week at IFC.  Why put your name behind something and schedule guest appearances for pieces of work that you were not proud or fond of?  

My reason for questioning the argument behind the movie selections, beside our class discussion on curatorial arguments, comes from the impression I got after reading the lineup online a couple weeks ago.   Though more than half the movies have nothing to do with sex or sexual orientation, the vibe I got from the event page was very homoerotic.  Interior. Leather Bar., a movie Franco and Travis Matthews directed with respect to the supposed lost footage from the 1980 film Cruising, has multiple, daily showings and two special appearance viewings with the directors.  Cruising, Sal, and My Own Private Idaho were a few of the others that caught my eye.  Was Franco trying to attract a male, homosexual crowd or formulate an argument around homoeroticism?  Or was it simply, as one of my coworkers put it, Franco exhibiting the works he was most proud of revolving around the subject he has the most interest in?

I decided to check it out for myself.  I attended two showings last night.  Interior. Leather Bar. at 5:30 and My Own Private Idaho, 35mm screening, at 7:15.  I was one of seven women at the earlier show in a theater that seats 114.  At the second screening, there was a greater mix of women and men.  And to divulge for a second, the 35mm screening was amazing.  I doubt I have seen film projected in a long time and right before I left for the movie theater, I read David Bordwell’s conclusion in Pandora’s Digital Box where he lists off the ways in which 35mm film is visually superior to digital format.  After the digital previews, the screen went black and I swear I could hear the projector start rolling.  I looked for that “film shimmer” Bordwell mentioned and the greater color range.  Then I remembered that for the first half of my life, I probably had been watching film.  However, my eyes are now used to digital and the only real way I was certain I was watching a film was because of those spots you can see while watching.  

Though I do believe the intended audience for last night’s showings was male-oriented, I can not go so far as to say Franco was arguing for homoeroticism at Francofest.  He does relay a message in Interior. Leather Bar. that sex should be shown freely and graphically in mainstream Hollywood films, but he clearly means sex of any kind, not just between homosexual men.  From the articles I have read, it appears as though Franco included Interior. Leather Bar. because it was a hit at the Berlin and Sundance film festivals.  And the decision to include My Own Private Idaho was because Franco created two new movies based off of it, My Own Private River and Idaho, with Brand Renfro Forever, that will be presented during Francofest.  

In retrospect, I would say Franco’s argument was more or less self-centered in terms of presenting work he was proud of and wanting to share with others.  I should have gotten up during the Q&A on Friday to ask.  I did walk away from this experience with the realization that curatorial work is happening all over the place and just because one may not be in a curatorial position at work, that does not mean he or she will not be given the opportunity to perform curatorial duties.  I also realize that movie theaters such as the IFC or Lincoln Center that have these mini-film festivals could be potential places of employment for me should I choose to focus my career in curating.  My eyes and ears are much more open and aware today of curating’s vast reach and I find it very promising for my future.  

---- Diana Ritter

Mar 8, 2014

Reframing NETWORK 1976) in a Contemporary Setting

by Roger Mancusi

            On the 18th of February 2014, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the New York Times Film Club screened the 1976 film Network at the Academy Theater at Lighthouse International (59th and Lexington Avenue). The event, which included two introductions, the screening itself, archived Awards Night footage, a panel discussion, and an audience Q&A, was timed to the publicity campaign of New York Times culture critic David Itzkoff’s book, Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies. The book, which chronicles the making of the 1976 Best Picture nominee, became the main talking point of the conversation and was also available for purchase in the lobby following the event. In the weeks after appearing at the Academy and New York Times Film Club joint event, Itzkoff’s press tour has taken or will take him to The New York Public Library, The Film Society of Lincoln Center, The Museum of the Moving Image, The Paley Center, and The Jacob Burns Film Center, among other venues, to discuss the film and his book—a project that has been receiving mostly mixed-positive to positive press coverage.1
David Itzkoff during the conversation (Photo credit: Peter Dressel)
Nominated for ten Academy Awards, Network’s four wins2 were more than enough to guarantee a 35mm print’s preservation at the Academy Film Archive in Hollywood, California.3 And with a New York Times journalist writing about the film, and the New York Times owned Times Books publishing the book, the event became a coming together of mutual interests to benefit from a common goal. As will be discussed in more detail later, the special screening was a successful gathering of likeminded cultural organizations, and their respective members and mailing lists, to maximize exposure to the Academy’s behind the scenes efforts as well as publicize Itzkoff’s book Mad as Hell.
            With an official title of “The Academy and the New York Times Film Club Present a Special Screening of Network,” the event was concurrently incorporated into both organizations’ programming schedules. To give the necessary background information, the Academy in New York’s programming schedule is a balance of members’ only advanced screenings and public screenings of nominated films or previous winners, usually free of charge or at extremely discounted rates. Similarly, the other co-host of the event, The New York Times Film Club, has a comparable program comprised of advanced screenings, filmmaker conversations, and revisited classics depending on what films and talent are available. For this event, each organization sent invitations to their regular mailing lists, with both the Academy and New York Times Film club making tickets available at no extra charge to their guests. Although the check-in process was separated by affiliation, once checked in, guests were free to sit wherever they pleased in the 220-person theater, which was at capacity by start time of 7:00pm.
As with many cinematic events in New York City, the audience demographic could be categorized in to two equally represented and approximated groups: the younger, eighteen to thirty-five year old crowd and the older, fifty to seventy year old contingency. The two sets of members, one from the Academy’s invite list and one from the New York Times Film Club membership, also had some slightly discernable characteristics. The Academy guest list is not comprised of Academy Members per se, but instead of individual filmgoers who have signed up to be on the public screening mailing list. That said, official Academy members are also invited to public screenings of films as well, but not vice versa. When a public Academy event is programmed, an email blast goes out to all of these individuals and, once they have requested a spot, they receive an email confirmation equal to one ticket at the door.
On the other hand, the New York Times Film Club ticketing system operates in a slightly different manner. Membership is purchased and good for one calendar year, and each membership guarantees you a ticket to a certain amount of events per year, depending on your membership level. There is a single membership, or, one popular membership option is designed for couples—that is—one RSVP guarantees two tickets to events. All a member has to do is reply to the New York Times Film Club’s email blast requesting attendance and guests are reserved their spot (or spots). Therefore, when comparing the tendencies of the Academy guests with the New York Times Film Club members at the Network event, it was noticeably more frequent that the Film Club members were attending the event in pairs, while the Academy guests were arriving on their own. Regardless of behavioral tendencies, both memberships fulfilled their ticketed allotments and the event was extremely well attended. As an added bonus and as a guest of the Academy and the New York Times Film Club, Sidney Lumet’s wife, Mary Lumet, was in attendance to support the work of her late husband.
            Once the guests were seated, the Program Director of the Academy in New York, Patrick Harrison, gave a brief introduction to the film and the panelists, before panelist David Itzkoff followed suit and, likewise, introduced the film. He alerted the audience to many of the film’s stand out qualities before the curtain parted and the 35mm print was projected on the twenty-five by ten foot screen.4 Following the end credits, the house lights came up to loud applause, and was immediately followed by the Academy’s archival footage of Paddy Chayefsky accepting his Best Original Screenplay Oscar. The audience seemed very receptive to the digitally projected clip, chuckling at the 1970’s fashion choices5 and especially at the mention of Network’s notable competition for Best Original Screenplay: Rocky
Once the clip had ended, David Itzkoff once again took the stage with his co-panelist for the post-screening conversation. They discussed many of the film’s production details covered in Mad as Hell, including but not limited to: Paddy Chayefsky’s domineering presence on set, Sidney Lumet’s directing style, and the impressive fact that the film’s iconic “Mad As Hell” scene was shot using only one master shot. A large portion of the conversation was also spent heralding the dedication that the actors and actresses put into their roles, and the demanding toll that the Howard Beale character had on Peter Finch—leading to his fatal heart attack on January 14, 1977. As noted by Itzkoff during the conversation, the exhaustive role and the rigorous awards campaign contributed to Finch’s death, and when he was awarded Best Actor at the Oscars, he became the first actor ever to be awarded a posthumous Oscar in an acting category.  
Itzkoff singing copies of Mad as Hell (Photo credit: Peter Dressel)
Itzkoff also noted how the film’s stance against big-money corporate takeovers is still applicable to the American society we live in today. The film takes a position against the influence of foreign capital on business decisions in the United States, which he argued could easily reflect on contemporary America’s wariness of oil money and its inherent bargaining power. With the help of the audience’s comments during the ensuing question and answer, Itzkoff was also able to draw connections between the film’s anti-corporation message and the contemporary merging of Comcast and Time Warner Cable. Much in the spirit of the film, many audience members felt compelled to laugh and shake a fist in the air at this mention, but guests were polite enough to refrain from screaming the film’s iconic line at mention of their cable provider. Following the question and answer period, the evening was concluded, but Itzkoff remained in the lobby to meet guests and sign copies of Mad as Hell. With a total run time of approximately three hours, the three involved organizations: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the New York Times Film Club, and Times Books; could consider the multi-faceted event a success.
This special screening of Network exemplifies how cultural organizations can pool their respective resources to gain the maximum benefits for all parties involved. If we break the event down into its many components, it becomes clear what each organization stood to gain from the event’s planned success. This joint initiative was a success on many levels, thanks in part to the quality and availability of the print, a large portion of the guest list, and the facilities provided by the Academy, the talent and remaining portion of the guest list provided by the New York Times Film Club, and the books for purchase provided by Times Books. Each organization fulfilled its duties in the organizational set up of the event, and its success brought positive results on many levels.
For the Academy, the event was a good opportunity to publicize their ongoing efforts to preserve and display 35mm prints of past Academy Award nominated films, as well as expose the public to previous films that are attached to the “Academy Award Winning” brand. In line with the Academy’s initiative to increase the general public’s awareness of the organization’s year round endeavors, here they are able to utilize both an archival print as well as archived digitalized award show footage in a public setting. The hard work that goes in to preserving and converting these images can now be used as the backbone of a successful public event. Beyond those positives, by using the Academy Theater as the event space, it alerts the public to the types of screenings that occur in that space besides the exclusive members’ only screenings.
Similarly, The New York Times Film Club members stand to benefit from the exposure to the same rare and quality 35mm print provided by the Academy, and also to the variety of programming events like this provide. In the dearth of quality theatrical films provided to film lovers in January and February, here was an opportunity to see a bona fide classic film, on a big screen, with an expert panel conversation, and all at no additional cost to attendees. The New York Times Film Club also has a shared interest with their sister-company, Times Books, in that by having David Itzkoff, the New York Times reporter, speak on the panel, it elevates his status as a knowledgeable culture critic and thereby elevates the publication’s status too. By placing the award winning film and the panelists in conversation with each other, the event also elevates Itzkoff and his book Mad as Hell to the prestige level of the film being celebrated. Finally, as the writer and his book become the forefront of the conversation, it is inherently good publicity for his project—conveniently for sale in the lobby.
Based off of the vocal response to the film and the conversation, the Academy and New York Times Film Club guests seemed to be very pleased with the event—cheering loudly at the film’s close and engaging Itzkoff with attentive questions during the question and answer period. The event, although technically presented without an argument or thesis by either the Academy or the New York Times Film Club, did begin to align itself with the film’s underlying message against clandestine corporate maneuvers and hyperbolized media hysteria. Through the guided analysis of David Itzkoff and his conversation with crowd members, the event’s main takeaway became how relevant a film like Network could be even in contemporary times. As this happens to be a concluding analytical point made by Itzkoff in Mad as Hell—contemporary American obsession with the internet and instantly available, and sometimes asinine, news—it became an appropriate way to end the evening. The conversation rounded off the presentation of materials well, melding the film’s historical and artistic importance with its cultural relevancy, and leaving the guests with a concrete conclusion to take home with them.
Given the difficulty of the putting together of materials, gathering of an audience, coordinating panelists, and renting facilities, The Academy and the New York Times Film Club must be commemorated for their cooperative effort putting this event together. Through the hard work of the programmers and event presenters, “The Academy and the New York Times Film Club Present a Special Screening of Network” was representative of the high standards that one would associate with both the Academy and the New York Times brands. The two organizations, which have collaborated well in the past, were able to continue their culturally symbiotic relationship, much to the pleasure of the event guests present that night.  

1) Sample Press Coverage of Mad as Hell:
·      New York Times Review:

Calendar Listings for the Event:

·      NYTFC Listings:

2) Wins include Best Actor, Peter Finch; Best Actress, Faye Dunaway; Best Supporting Actress, Beatrice Straight; and Best Writing, Best Screenplay Best Original Screenplay, Paddy Chayefsky. Also nominated for Best Actor, William Holden; Best Supporting Actor, Ned Beatty; Best Cinematography, Owen Roizman; Best Film Editing, Alan Heim; Best Director, Sidney Lumet; and Best Picture.

3) The Academy Film Archive’s description on the official website (
Dedicated to motion picture preservation, restoration, exhibition and study, the archive includes 165,000 film and video assets relating to approximately 80,000 individual titles. This extensive and diverse collection includes Academy Award-nominated films, past Oscar® telecasts, documentaries, silent movies, experimental films, interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, home movies, international cinema and much, much more.”

4) Per the Academy Theater’s website:

5) This was conveyed in a personal conversation with an audience member after the screening.

Mar 7, 2014

Exhibiting Wangechi Mutu’s Impossible Futures

by Benjamin Turkus

The line of visitors snaking its way through the foyer of the Brooklyn Museum on an otherwise quiet, snowy Sunday during the month of February gave me pause—I had never seen such a crowd clamoring and jockeying for position at the massive Beaux-Arts building on the northeastern tip of Prospect Park.  Could this eclectic array of individuals possibly be gathered for the first ever solo museum exhibition devoted exclusively to the art of the endlessly provocative and exhilarating Nairobi-born, Brooklyn-based Wangechi Mutu?  While a thorough accounting of tickets purchased and exhibits visited was beyond the scope of my amateur ethnographic detective skills, it was immediately apparent that those making up this densely packed throng of fashionable snow boots, fur-lined winter coats, and utilitarian parkas were instead spurred to brave the elements to gain admittance to the immensely popular, soon-to-close The Fashion World of Jean-Paul Gaultier: From the Catwalk to the Sidewalk.  And though one could present an intriguing case for Mutu and Gaultier as artists sharing certain sympathetic frequencies—both display diverse manipulations of an array of media, and both demonstrate a deep commitment to challenging “societal, gender, and aesthetic codes in unexpected ways”—one could only hope that the many admirers gathered to pay tribute to the creator of Madonna’s infamous pointed corset (for 1990’s Blond Ambition Tour) would be willing to venture further afield, and begin to explore some of the other treasures hidden in the vast expanse of the somewhat intimidating Brooklyn Museum (Brooklyn Museum: The Fashion World of Jean-Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk).
             As part of an experiment in observing and assessing a curated moving image exhibition, I visited the Brooklyn Museum and Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey on two separate occasions: the aforementioned blizzardy Sunday afternoon (February 16, 2014), and the following Thursday (February 20, 2014), for an event titled Off the Wall.  Part of a new initiative designed to attract visitors to the museum during evening hours (6:30 P.M. -9:30 P.M.), the Off the Wall series features “site-specific performances inspired by the exhibitions on display” (BWW Art World: Brooklyn Museum to Launch “Off the Wall” with Wangechi Mutu’s Fantastic Journey, 2/20).  The February 20th Off the Wall revolved around the theme of Afrofuturism, a term coined by cultural critic Mark Dery in “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose” (1993) to describe what he considered at the time to be an always-burgeoning, never fully-blossoming cultural and artistic mode made up of equal parts fine art (Jean-Michel Basquiat), literature (Samuel R. Delany), and music (Sun Ra, Parliament-Funkadelic).  The lodestone of Afrofuturism, and the guiding question of Dery’s essay—“Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?”—can also be seen as the abiding concern of Mutu, a Kenyan-born artist whose own work shows signs of a struggle to upend traditional notions of diasporic and refugeean identity (180).  Following a curator-led tour of Mutu’s disorienting, post-racial, post-human, post-gender creations, Off the Wall featured a roundtable discussion regarding the work of seminal science fiction writer Octavia Butler (who, like Mutu, plays with the conventions of science fiction as a means of transcending our Earthly fixation on categorizing and taxonomizing), a live music, performance, and dance piece titled The Beginning of Everything eating by Daví (an explicit reference to and inversion of one of Mutu’s video installations), and ChimaTEK: The Dinner Party Uploaded, an interactive performance by Saya Woolfk.  As one would likely expect, the crowd attracted to the Off the Wall event was young, enthusiastic, and multicultural, and the after-hours, Night at the Museum feeling of the evening (accentuated by a cash bar) added a slightly illicit charge to the air.  Off the Wall was, simply put, a wonderful counterpoint to my previous visit, which had a much more conventional, Sunday-in-the-Park, afternoon-at-the-museum feel to it.
To properly assess and analyze the moving image curatorial philosophies and practices underlying Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey, it is necessary to attend to some of the particularities and eccentricities of the exhibition.  A Fantastic Journey is perhaps best considered a survey, or an overview, of a thriving career, and the video works on display serve as simply one illustration of the broad array of Mutu’s remarkable talents. While my attention focused primarily on video materials, the selective nature of this analysis will hopefully avoid giving the mistaken impression that Mutu is a video artist; in fact, Mutu is a truly multidisciplinary artist, best known for her bold, striking collages of ink, paint, and found materials (National Geographic, Vogue, and Motorbike Magazines; fake fur; felt blankets; and sparkling jewels) on Mylar plastic sheeting.
Presenting more the fifty works from the 1990s to the present, A Fantastic Journey is curatorial at its very core.  Organized by Trevor Schoonmaker, the Patsy R. and Raymond D. Curator of Contemporary Art at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, in close collaboration with Mutu, A Fantastic Journey is a well-thought-out, carefully designed introduction to the diverse range of Mutu’s work, including elements of sculpture, collage, drawing, installation, and video.  Schoonmaker and Mutu have a long-standing personal and professional relationship; as Sarah Schroth, the Nancy Hanks Senior Curator and Interim Director of the Nasher Museum, describes, “The relationship between Trevor and Wangechi has developed over a period of thirteen years and the extent of their mutual trust and respect is evident in the innovative offerings and intellectual depth of this exhibition and catalogue” (13).  One of the earliest works on display—Yo Mama, a fantastical portrait of Funmilayo Anikulapo–Kuti, the mother of Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti—traces back to Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, a 2003 New Museum exhibition curated by Schoonmaker.

A taste of Mutu’s fantastical collage: Yo Mama (2003). © Wangechi Mutu. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art.  Photo by David Allison.
Though currently installed at the Brooklyn Museum, A Fantastic Journey is a traveling exhibition (originating at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University) that will continue on, stopping at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami and the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University (Schroth 13).  Sponsored by a lengthy list of private and institutional benefactors (A Fantastic Journey received “essential financial support” from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts), the peripatetic nature of the exhibition will require Mutu’s complex pieces to be re-installed at every leg of the journey (13).  While Mutu and her team have and will likely continue to oversee this process themselves, Saisha Grayson, Assistant Curator at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, described Schoonmaker as “wonderfully hands-off,” willing to allow Grayson the opportunity to help Mutu adapt her works to the unusual and intimate Sackler Center, often referred to as a “museum within a museum” (Grayson; Miccuci). In whatever space she is provided, Mutu takes advantage of every inch, carefully wrapping columns and walls with felt blankets to create what Schoonmaker calls an “immersive, tactile domain,” full of “three-dimensional life” (21).

Mutu leaves no surface untouched, transforming columns into trees with felt blankets.

Occupying 8,300 feet on the forth floor of the Brooklyn Museum, the triangular Sackler Center is a unique gallery space designed around a permanent exhibition, Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1974-1979), often described as “the first epic feminist artwork” (Micucci).  Unlike the more flexible, open square of the Nasher Gallery, the unusual layout and multiple entrances and exits of the Sackler Center present a host of unique spatial/organizational challenges (Bernstein).  But while the Sackler gallery imposes a certain measure of compression, or perhaps a cramped feeling, to the Mutu exhibition, it does provocatively force Mutu’s work into an intriguing conversation with the breed of high feminist art represented by Chicago’s classic work.  And this conversation, notably, can be understood as either pleasantly agreeable, divisively heated, or some amalgamation of both.  

The Floor Plan of Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. 

 Limiting yet also expansive, the Sackler Center ultimately reinforces the beautifully open-ended nature of Mutu’s art, giving it an opportunity to truly flourish.  Undoubtedly feminist, though resistant to forestalling individual interpretations of her work, it is likely that Mutu had conflicting feelings regarding the Sackler Center installation.  As she described in a recent interview:

I think everyone reads the work depending on where they are coming from.  I don’t want my work read from one angle.  My approach to race and ethnicity and my identity all shift depending on where I am (Buck).

Of the many Mutu works currently on display at the Sackler Center, three are video installations:
  1. Amazing Grace (2005), color, sound, 7:09 minute loop, edition of six
  2. Eat Cake (2012), black-and-white, sound, 12:51 minute loop, edition of six
  3.  The End of eating Everything (2013), color, sound, animation, 8:00 minute loop, edition of six (Schoonmaker 156-164).
iPhone photos of limited quality are presented above and below to help provide some limited sense of the technological specificities of A Fantastic Journey.
Amazing Grace, the earliest video on display, depicts Mutu walking slowly into the ocean while singing the Christian hymn “Amazing Grace” in her native Kenyan language Kikuyu.  Referred to by Schoonmaker as a “meditation on the African slave trade and the travails of displaced populations,” the haunting sounds of Amazing Grace echo throughout the exhibition space (23).  Presented to viewers on a flat-screen digital television hidden behind a felt blanket-lined wall, the 7:09 excerpt of the 59-minute Amazing Grace is a digital file that plays on an external hard drive connected directly to the television screen.

The felt blanket-lined wall of Amazing Grace (2005).

In Eat Cake, a more recent video work, Mutu again presents herself, but this time she masquerades as a figure akin to one of Macbeth’s witches.  In the video, Mutu materializes in front of a tree by a riverside, then proceeds to gorge herself on a three-tiered chocolate cake.  Most relevant to this discussion is the unusual manner of presentation for Eat Cake.  Projected from a digital projector attached to the ceiling of the Sackler Center, the video is made visible to the viewer on a compressed wooden packing crate topped with a piece of cardboard.  While the brand of projector was not discernible, it was apparent that an external hard drive (with digital video files) was attached to the projector.

Eat Cake (2012), surrounded by a crowd of visitors on a Sunday afternoon in February.  The image, projected from above, picks up a distorted, grainy texture from the damaged cardboard placed atop a wooden crate, on which the video is projected.
The final, and most elaborate video on display in A Fantastic Journey is The End of eating Everything (2013), a new work commissioned by the Nasher Museum of Art specifically for the exhibition.  A wonderful example of what Holland Carter, a New York Times art critic, referred to as Mutu’s ability to meld unpopular content with popular form, The End of eating Everything—a harsh condemnation of the environmental impact of excessive consumption—is an 8-minute animated video that features popular musician Santigold.  Again projected from a ceiling-mounted digital projector with an attached external hard drive, The End of eating Everything is a menacing and hallucinatory viewing experience, one that forces visitors to bear witness to one of Mutu’s signature cyborgian creatures brought to terrifying life.
Though commissioned by the Nasher Museum, The End of eating Everything was co-released by MOCAtv, a YouTube channel and “digital extension” of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.  One of the YouTube’s “Education Channels,” MOCAtv has its own curatorial mission, presenting “both curated and original videos to inform, educate and engage a global audience with contemporary art and its intersection with film, video, music, performance, dance, comedy, and more” (YouTube: MOCAtv: About).  While the MOCAtv channel hosts a 3:40 excerpt of the full 8-minute video, the collaboration between the two institutions demonstrates the new curatorial and cross-promotional possibilities arising in the digital age.
As expertly described by Schoonmaker, the exhibition of A Fantastic Journey allows visitors to “enter and experience a transformed and transformative space” (47).  While Mutu’s work with video is only one element of her astounding artistic expression, moving image materials do lend a striking power to this transformative experience.  By constructing her own utterly unique visual language, one that is fundamentally apart, Mutu challenges us to form our own unique interpretations, beginning to contemplate new and diverse possibilities for our own futures.

Bernstein, Rosalyn.  “Everything Grows: Inside Wangechi Mutu’s A Fantastic Journey.” Guernica Magazine.  January 14, 2014.  Web.
Buck, Louisa.  “Artist Interview: Wangechi Mutu and Her Warrior Women.”  The Art Newspaper.  Issue 244, March 2014.  Web.
Carter, Holland.  “A Survey of Wangechi Mutu at the Brooklyn Museum.”  New York Times.  October 10, 2013.  Web.
Dery, Mark.  “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose.”  Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture.  Ed. Mark Dery.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994.
Grayson, Saisha.  Personal Interview.  February 20, 2014.
Micucci, Dana.  “Feminist Art Gets Place of Pride in Brooklyn.”  New York Times.  April 19, 2007.  Web.
Schoonmaker, Trevor.  Ed.  Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013.
Schroth, Sarah.  Foreword.  Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey.  Ed. Trevor Schoonmaker. Durham, NC Duke University Press, 2013.

Web resources

BWW Art World: Brooklyn Museum to Launch ‘Off the Wall’ with Wangechi Mutu’s Fantastic Journey, 2/20
YouTube: MOCAtv: About
The Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University: Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey
The Brooklyn Museum: Floor Plan: Fourth Floor
The Brooklyn Museum: Exhibitions: The Fashion World of Jean-Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk
The Brooklyn Museum: Exhibitions: Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey
The Brooklyn Museum: The Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art