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How can museums make us pay proper attention to moving images?

28 November 2018

Moving image work is having a moment. In this year’s Turner Prize, a marker of the state of contemporary art in Britain, every nominated work is fully or partially made up of moving images. Where previously artists’ film and video has often been a more specialist interest, now it appears to be moving into the mainstream, bringing with it unique curatorial challenges.

Museum visitors can be fickle with their patience. It’s one thing attending a screening specifically to watch a certain film or video. But when moving image is incorporated into an exhibition or a collection it can be difficult to catch audiences that are passing through and, for those that are compelled to stay, starting to watch part-way through a piece can detract from the work itself. Watching something from beginning to end allows you to follow a narrative and visual storytelling. Yet in many cases the artist has little control over which frame will become the viewer’s first impression of the work. While there are formal devices that artists can use to address this, such as Rachel Rose’s approach of creating a loop that links beginning and end, sometimes it is up to the institution to keep visitors hooked.

For the current Turner Prize exhibition, the Tate has grappled with the task of showing four and a half hours of content. One simple strategy was printing the start times for many of the films outside the viewing rooms. Yet no-one is compelled to give a work their undivided attention. I saw one visitor arrive at Naeem Mohaiemen’s 93-minute film Tripoli, Cancelled (2017) while the principal character was pretending to drive a shell of an aircraft, making spluttering and spitting noises as he revved the imaginary engine – probably the loudest and most comical moment in an otherwise meditative film. The visitor stayed for a couple of minutes while the protagonist continued his absurdist performance, then left – presumably coming away with a distorted impression of the piece.

When I speak to Linsey Young, the curator of this year’s prize, about the challenges of exhibiting moving image, she emphasises the importance of comfort: ‘I kept thinking, how would my mother feel walking around this exhibition?’ This resulted in comfortable cinema-style seats in screening spaces – each artist’s work is presented in a separate room – and a central recuperation room with sofas, reading material and natural light. ‘You always have to think about the body and what it will experience, and the body needs rest.’ However, while the space is a useful waiting room for the start of the next film, and the selection of books complements the themes of the works well, with four and a half hours of footage to watch, I’m not sure how many people have time to sit down and read as well.

Other institutions take different approaches. For its recent Lee Bul exhibition, the Hayward Gallery introduced headphone monitors with on/off buttons so that audience members had no choice but to start at the beginning. ‘Strange Days: Memories of the Future’, the Vinyl Factory’s most recent venture (in collaboration with the New Museum) at 180 The Strand, consists of moving image installations by 21 artists. It would be daunting if it weren’t free of charge. The Tate also has a ticketed film programme, in the specially designed Starr Cinema and Clore Auditorium. But how much can or should we really police audience interactions with works of art? At a certain point perhaps curators just have to trust that those who want to spend the time with moving image work will take advantage of what’s on offer – and there is more on offer than ever before.

The Turner Prize 2018 is at Tate Britain, London, until 6 January 2019. The winner is announced on 4 December.