Common Room: The Mediatheque Tour, a progressive mobile screening of works from the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection, commences by bicycle at 7:30 pm, September 6, 2017, from the Lake Nokomis Main Beach, Minneapolis.
This is probably one of those untrue things you hear at some point and retain it as fact, even after you’ve learned it’s not. But somewhere or other, I’d heard that one of the first screenings of Louis Lumière’s early motion picture, Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory in Lyon, was screened not at a theater, but at the same factory where it was shot, for an audience of the same workers it depicted.
I loved this idea, for a variety of reasons.
Imagine being one of those workers, showing up at the factory to see a movie of yourself at the factory. Famously, the first viewers of another great classic of early cinema, The Great Train Robbery, flinched when the actor Justus D. Barnes shot his gun at the viewer. I wonder if a factory worker seeing her life reflected back to her on screen, sitting in that same factory, would also flinch—not at the artifice of the special effect of a gunshot, but at the more subtle experience of being so immersed in the setting, both inside and outside the action onscreen.
Sadly, I don’t think this tidbit is actually true—the movie was shown for the first time at a café in Paris—but the idea of watching a movie in a setting that somehow relates directly to that setting is one that’s stuck with me. Maybe it’s because I have such vivid memories of the first movie I ever saw in a theater: E.T., at the Village 8 Cinemas in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1985, the year the movie was re-released. As much as anything, I remember how closely the 1980s child-dominated suburban landscape of the film resembled the landscape in which the Village 8 Cinemas sat. Besides for the major detail of the alien, I was living in that landscape: I walked out of the world of the movie with my dad into the same surface parking lots, strip malls, half-built subdivision developments, and backwoods BMX trails.
For a few years, I’ve run a program with my colleague Sergio Vucci called Common Room. Through a series of weekly tours in August, we take people out into the city landscape and, through the experience of walking through it and interacting both with it and with the other people who’ve shown up, think about aspects of the landscape that might otherwise be overlooked. Each trip is themed around some organizing principle—like cats or fishing or alleys or built and unbuilt freeways.
To some extent, they fall somewhere between guided tour and travelogue, but by working with a specific theme, we can open up parts of the landscape a standard tour guide or travel writer wouldn’t typically bother with. An unremarkable bridge over a railroad track in south Minneapolis takes on a slightly different meaning when, say, you learn a colony of feral cats lives unseen beneath it, and have pointed out to you how the surrounding flora and fauna (the birds, in particular) are affected in subtle and dramatic ways by the presence of that colony.
Common Room is at its heart a very low-tech operation, but we’ve done a little bit of work with media over the years. Last year, for instance, the artist Mike Hoyt led a rolling bicycle revue through the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis with a gas generator-powered projector, projecting karaoke videos on the sides of the bridges for participants to sing. This year, we were approached by the Walker’s Ruth Hodgins about doing something with some of the short films from the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection, extending the experience beyond the Walker’s wonderful Mediatheque theater and out into the world. We decided to show five of these films around sites in Minneapolis that somehow relate to the onscreen action, carried out in the form of a traveling bicycle roadshow. On Common Room tours, we’ve often showered attention on underutilized parts of the landscape, such as the bottoms of bridges, blank walls, and alleys. This type of infrastructure, it turns out, is perfect for projecting a movie onto.
There’s a reverent quality to seeing movies in the movie theater, evidenced by the fact that so much of the experience is ritualized: the popcorn, the drinks, the previews, the announcement to turn off your cellphones, and, especially, the interaction between the audience and what’s on screen. You can never manage all the variables in terms of how many people are there with you and how loud they are, but, to some extent, it’s a controlled environment.
Especially now, when so many options for consuming video and movies outside of the traditional theater setting exist, the choice to go to the movies and have the full experience is a deliberate one. In a way, you’re choosing a communal experience. The way most people experience films and videos have been liberated from that context entirely. You can go on any bus in Minneapolis, and you can be sure someone is watching a video on his or her phone. The experience is different, in two key ways: it’s a solitary experience, and it’s a site-specific experience. Things that can go off the rails a little bit when you’re watching a movie in public.
The Mediatheque Tour is a modest shot at finding some middle ground between the communal aspect of seeing a movie with a group of people and the site-specific aspect of watching a movie on your phone on the bus. Taking a few shorts and putting them out around the neighborhoods of south Minneapolis is a way to show unremarkable parts of the landscape in a new light: flooding the back of a neighborhood bar with images of a fantastical bar fight by a British video artist and choreographer, or showing a time-jumping experimental short about driving from Minnesota to Mexico along I-35 under a bridge carrying that same highway, the traffic roaring overhead and blending with the movie’s soundtrack of found sounds and music.
Movies shape the way we experience our surroundings in profound ways—when I think back on the suburbs of my 1980s childhood, I am little embarrassed to report that a lot of those memories really do look like a Spielberg movie. I’m not sure if that’s because he and his team got the art direction and costume design so right the first time or because I began to unconsciously merge my own surroundings with those in movies. On Wednesday night, we’re going to find out if we can push that blurring between place and subject a little bit further. Like any event that takes place in a public place, there’s a chance that unforeseen and bizarre disruptions, from inclement weather to technological snafus, will interfere. Which is fine: it’s not a movie theater, after all. We’ll roll with it. But I am hoping we also find out if seeing a Russian animated comic short about the personal lives of insects, to use one more example from the program, takes on different layers of meaning when viewed in a forest surrounded by buzzing insects.