Empire Drive-in, AND Festival

Courtesy of Alexandros Papadopoulos

Text by Dr. Alexandros Papadopoulos.

What is urban, modern and ‘successful’ about cinema? Todd Chandler and Jeff Stark, New-York based video artists, urban-cosmonauts and party-organizers launched a visual, acoustical and perfomative attack to this question. Invited to participate in Abandon Normal Devices (AND), a multidisciplinary art festival, co-organized by Fact (Liverpool) and Cornerhouse (Manchester), the group used an empty parking space in central Manchester in order to playfully sabotage the festival’s main theme ‘Success’. The idea was to stage an obsolescent and degenerate version of what used to be the most successful, popular and hip form of American entertainment: the drive-in movie theatre.

The art-collective created a mix of post-apocalyptic leisure: a cemetery of cars, videos of dilapidated landscapes, DJ’s-led sound-scapes, 1950’s consumerist bliss, deranged documentaries on ‘humaness’, 1980s sci-fi films (Robocop, Mad Max), a techno-ethereal love story (Gravity was Everywhere Back Then), post-rock soundtracks and live Mad-Max performance (Tranarchy). Taken together, all these elements constructed a haunted, funny and melancholic archaeology of failure. Casting a shadow over the future of contemporary commercial dreamscapes (malls, cinematic complexes), the ruined drive-in seemed to herald a fresh genre of cinematic fetishism. Set against the increasingly futuristic over-dominance of indoors digital entertainment, this style of movie-going reclaimed an open-air, synesthetic and ultra-material sense of past: it uncovered the hedonistic remnants of what used to be experienced as ‘future’ in the past.

This genealogy of future – a pop historicity of future – was the combined effect of setting, films and landscape. The wrecked cars did not only comply with the video projections of urban decay: they also evoked a dysfunctional (or ‘abandoned’) device of moving images. The images viewed by the window of a moving car allude to the spectatorial (and hypnotic) experience of cinema. (This similarity between car-window and screen-gazing is highly visible in many classical films and especially in Mad-Max, in which the spectator is recurrently invited to assume the viewing position of the driver.) The immobilized body of a dead car, however, is bereft of this visual illusion, in the same way that a 1980s sci-film (viewed in 2012) is bereft of the illusion of ‘future-ness’. In this respect, both cars and films looked like broken time-machines of visual pleasure. All this contrasted ironically with the plots projected on screen; there, the futuristic technology either strived to restore the fragility of human experience (Robocop, Gravity was Everywhere Back then) or to assert a neo-primitive explosion of wilderness (Mad Max). In all cases, the traumatised devices of illusion [cars, cinematic space] seemed to enact—as pseudo-historical monuments — the traumatised futures visualized on screen.

While, originally staged in abandoned buildings in New York, when set in Manchester, the event’s disturbed sense of future-ness seemed to return to its symbolic country of origin: by being the first place in the world in which the industrial became an awe-inspiring attraction, Manchester is the mother of science fiction, the birthplace of the futurology and the urban epitome of dystopian entertainment. Combined together, the ruined drive-in and the hosting city seemed to tell the story of a mythical time-space in which technology is experienced as emotion, the future as past and the failure as success.

Dr. Alexandros Papadopoulos is a cultural theorist and performance artist based in Manchester.

Published 07.09.2012 by Bryony Bond in Reviews

544 words