Contemporary artists frequently organize screenings of films or compose film programs, either in art spaces or in cinemas (often in conjunction with one of their exhibitions). The practice has become so established that it seems to have become one more tool in the contemporary artist’s toolkit, albeit not always used with great discrimination. However, the more interesting examples can also be seen as reflections on the screening session as a medium, or rather as a model of artistic practice that tries to go beyond dominant and oft‐criticized forms of movie consumption. The screening‐as‐event can be a performative exploration of alternative modes of mediation, operating directly on the present by reworking the past in an attempt to foster different relationships between audience and screen.
For our historical investigation, in which we want to establish genealogies of different screening practices,, we have adopted the French term séance, which carries the meaning "seat," "session" or "sitting," referring in a general sense to public meetings of a parliamentary or governmental nature and, in a more restricted sense, to a film screening—une séance de cinéma. The usage of the term in English is more limited: it may follow the French in signifying the "meeting of a society," yet since the 19th century its meaning has been mostly restricted to that of a spiritualist session, a private gathering to receive and relay messages by means of a spirit medium. As Karl Marx famously stated at mid‐century, the tables began to dance in the topsy‐turvy world of bourgeois culture at the exact same time that the specter of communism began to rove across the European landscape. For Marx, the séance was but one more symptom of the phantasmagoric reality of capitalism – a deceitful mode of social exchange that dissolves solid reality into a shadow play of displaced affects and longings.
Even before the Lumière brothers invented the cinema as we know it, thereby adding another layer to the semantic richness of the word séance, its restrictive, ideological destiny within the English‐speaking world appears to have fixed. Turning back upon this history, we would like to bring the various meanings of the word séance back in play—public gathering, political meeting, cinematic program—by organizing a series of film screenings that restage selected moments in the history and social experience of cinematic exhibition. In particular, we are interested in the question how cinema programs have functioned as models for establishing a possible or impossible public, or socius. In the age of the DVD and online streaming, those forms of post-séance culture, the nature of film viewing is being reconfigured—making a historical and theoretical examination of the séance all the more necessary.
The screening as event and the past as archive; these are the twin poles between which a series of film screenings on which we are working will oscillate. In this seminar, students can work on a number of cases, exploring the complexities and contradictions of writing the history of the ephemeral and restaging one-off events. Art history traditionally focuses on a set of relatively well-defined objects, and even films—fleeting as their experience is—can play the role of such objects. What, however, if the focus shifts from work to frame, from object to event?