Tuesday, 19 August 2008


Robert Smithson, Towards the Development of a "Cinema Cavern" (1971) Pencil, photography, tape. 12 5/8" x 15 5/8".

The current issue of Cabinet magazine has the theme of "underground" and the usual diverse mix of subjects includes a short essay by Colby Chamberlain on Robert Smithson's proposal for an underground cinema, outlined in his 1971 Artforum  essay "A Cinematic Atopia" and also in a drawing - reproduced in cabinet, also from 1971 - with the handwritten title: Towards the Development of a Cinema Cavern or the movie goer as spelunker

Smithson's drawings reveal the basic architecture of his scheme: " The projection booth would be made out of crude timbers, the screen carved out of a rock wall and painted white, the seats could be boulders. It would be a truly "underground" cinema." (The Collected Writings, 142). 

Chamberlain's article focusses on Smithson's use of the word "underground." If Smithson was most directly referencing the underground cinema of Stan Brakhage, Ken Jacobs, Robert Breer and others - and its accompanying organizations such as the Film-Makers Co-op - Chamberlain highlights how in 1971 the word had already become a global cultural phenomenon, with the underground covered extensively in Time, Newsweek and Life. Chamberlain also highlights how the term has a broader cinematic usage as well - first used by Manny Farber in 1957 to praise the works of Howard Hawks, Val Lewton and other directors of 1930's and 1940's action movies.

Such a complex of origins, uses, and etymologies also characterize the cinematic experience as it appears in Smithson's essay. Beginning with a phenomenological account of cinema going, Smithson focusses on the "immobilization of the body" that causes memory to become " a wilderness of elsewheres." Instead of writing about film, Smithson focusses on how the elsewhere's of all the films he has seen "reconstruct themselves as a tangled mass," an ever canceling void where abstract films are countered by Hollywood movies whose stories and characters are "enough to put one into a permanent coma." So Smithson imagines a film encyclopedia but there, too, "Categories would destroy themselves, no law or plan would hold itself together for very long."

The Cavern Cinema, then, emerges as the redemption of this situation, as a cinema which, by virtue of its isolated location and by only showing the film of its own construction, returns a definitiveness to the cinematic experience. And yet, the cavern cinema is also not an alternative to but an ultimate realization of the limbo, void, and coma characterizing the cinema experience:

The ultimate film-goer would be a captive of sloth. Sitting constantly in a movie house, among the flickering shadows, his perception would take on a kind of sluggishness. He would be the hermit dwelling among the elsewheres, forgoing the salvation of reality. Films would follow films, until the action of each one would drown in a vast reservoir of pure perception. 

He would not be able to distinguish between good or bad films, all would be swallowed up into an endless blur. He would not be watching films, but rather experiencing blurs of many shades. Between blurs he might even fall asleep, but that wouldn't matter. Soundtracks would hum through the torpor. Words would drop through this languor like so many lead weights. 

This dozing consciousness would bring about a tepid abstraction. It would increase the gravity of perception. Like a tortoise crawling over a desert, his eyes would crawl across the screen. All films would be brought into equilibrium - a vast mud field of images forever motionless. (141-142)

A 50,ooo-ton water Cerenkov detector, a kilometer underground in a former mine located in Kamioka-cho, Gifu, Japan. Courtesy Kamioka Observatory, Institute for Cosmic Ray Research, University of Tokyo. Reprinted in Cabinet 30.

Flam's edition of Smithson's Collected Writings presents  A Cinematic Atopia alongside images of Smithsons film of A Spiral Jetty, in a manner redolent of Smithson's own image-text magazine  essays. It suggests a reading of all of Smithson's work as in some sense cinematic, that part of his dialectics of landscape was a search in remote places for a kind of cinema, an image factory where the true cavern cinema could be built, mocking a cultures productivity but also embodying it, distilling as well as expanding experience and meaning. The simultaneous life and death, reality and illusion of the cinema is a revelation of Smithson's entropic world view.

I'm trying to imagine the cavern cinema and the effect and meaning of its materials, spaces and experiences. In the cavern cinema stone, wood and projected images present a spectrum from permanence to intangibility, yet within the cinema each partakes of some of the qualities of the others: looped film on stone gives the later some of the intangibility, movement and shadow play of the former. Perhaps wood is preserved in this underground bunker. Certainly, it moves closer towards the monolithic, permanent quality of stone. Images are given something of the definiteness of matter by having an immediate correlation with their environment. 

It's an intoxicating mix, but, of course, it's one that even as it enjoys the fantasy of perpetual motion, is ever prone to break down and collapse. As elsewhere in Smithson's work, the cavern cinema is deeply entwined with notions of decay and entropy. Smithson's essay concludes with a list of the field trips that have comprised his search for a location for the cavern cinema, to caves, mines and quarries in Vancouver, New York State and California, but it's noticeable that each ends in failure - or, in Smithson's entropic riddled language: "the project dissolved", "nothing was done."  Attempting to realize the cavern cinema Smithson encounters in these subterranean vaults the fantasy and impossibility of the cinematic image. 

The 1957 "Classics Illustrated" comic book edition of Jules Verne's A Journey to the Center of the Earth, reprinted from Cabinet 30.

Given it was never built, photo documentation of the cavern cinema is limited. There is one photo, originally from Sports Illustrated, that Smithson taped on to his schematic plan. It shows the humorous theatricality with which Smithson conceived his proposal: a spelunker heading up a cave, the light on his head - like the light from the cinema projector - lighting the cave in front of him. Smithson's use of this photo activates the debate around performance of his unpublished 1967 essay From Ivan the Terrible to Roger Corman or Paradoxes of Conduct in Mannerism as Reflected in the Cinema. The ultimate effect is not dissimilar to what Smithson says there of Warhol's films: "the phony naturalism of we're-just-ordinary-guys-doing-our-thing becomes brilliant manneristic travesty." (349) This, too, is a dynamic of the cavern cinema.   

Smithson and Warhol are certainly both artists with a complex relationship to notions of "underground cinema", a fact noted by Saul Anton's recent novel Warhol's Dream (2007). As I begin to think how to develop a relationship to Smithson's cavern cinema, treating it as a continuing process rather than an concept in drawing and essay, I'm drawn to the imagined conversation of Anton's novel for the way ideas are exchanged between Warhol and Smithson in continually refracting patterns of similarity and difference, sympathy and incomprehension, admiration and annoyance:  

BOB   I once thought about making a piece called Underground Cinema. It would be a theater but the only film it would show would be one of is own construction, how it was dug and hollowed out of the ground. Instead of a camera seeing itself, it would be a space spacing itself, a document of its own future. The moment the cave was complete would also be the end of the film. 

ANDY   That sounds fascinating. Did you ever make it? 

BOB    It's an impossible proposition. The subject of the film, the cave, only comes to be after the film is finished. It means that the film is filming what is in fact a future that hasn't arrived yet, and which arrives at precisely the moment it stops recording. When you can finally see the film, you're seeing a past that doesn't belong to the present.

ANDY    I think that's what love is like. You're working toward it thinking you're about to get there, but by the time you do, you're already trying to recapture it because you think it's gone and you want to get it back. That's how it always is on soap operas. (139-40)