Rooftop views are one of New York’s treasures. The vistas stretch farther than one could ever see from the street, and up above the hustle, the city takes on a certain quiet peacefulness. T.J. Wilcox’s current installation at The Whitney Museum, Into the Air, recreates the panoramic vistas seen outside his rooftop studio in an innovative 360-degree film installation. Using four GoPro cameras taking regular high-resolution images every second from dawn to dusk, the film was then digitally sutured together into one frame and adjusted for projection on a curved screen. Into the Air both recreates the proto-cinematic space of the panorama and engages with digital cameras and postproduction techniques and the cinephilia of recent installation art.
The panoramic time-lapsed day is interrupted periodically by six short films inspired by corresponding views out onto the city. These shorts, on subjects such as his super’s recollection of seeing the attacks of 9/11, a faux documentary on zeppelin travel, a biography of Gloria Vanderbilt, a short on Andy Warhol’s silver clouds, and a short film of Manhattanhenge, use a mixture of black and white, super-8, and video footage, breaking up not only the continuous image, but also reasserting the past materiality of the filmic medium. In a panel discussion last night with Wilcox, curator Chrissie Iles, and artist Anne Collier, questions of materiality of the medium and the experience of the studio space brought the two artists’ work in dialogue. The panel was very illuminating on the artist’s process and formative years as an art student in Los Angeles, but did not focus on the materiality of the screen itself. Here I wish to ruminate instead on the material presence of the work in the gallery.
The clear precedent for the work’s form are eighteenth and nineteenth century panoramas. Conceived as immersive spaces, the panoramas were meant to completely transport the viewer to another (often far off) place. In the image of the Leicester Square panorama above, the scale of the panoramic painting completely dwarfs the viewer. Even in the more modestly sized panorama of Versailles by John Vanderlyn at the Met, the scale and height of the work attempts to envelope the viewer’s gaze. Mary Ann Doane has discussed this horizontal expansiveness in relationship to the sublime [see my earlier post]. At the Whitney, however, both the intervening short films and the screen’s physical presence as a museum object negate the panorama’s immersion.
The vignettes, each using one of the installation’s projectors, and thus one-tenth of the film’s overall frame, have a much higher visual pull than the panorama. When I visited the installation yesterday, the audience’s attention was nearly completely in one direction when the shorts were playing (which is not during the entire film, as their cycle is interspersed with moments where the entire image is projected). Despite the radically different projection system, visitors still observed established codes for viewing films in museums (quiet, static observation) during those vignettes. This could also be due to the lack of sound in the piece and use of subtitles – people don’t want to miss anything important in the half-hour loop.
The second thwart to the image’s immersive potential breaks even more abruptly with the historical panorama. The screen is of limited height, never fully enveloping one’s visual field, and noticeably warped. In order to “enter” the film and thus occupy the vistas of from Wilcox’s rooftop studio, you have to duck under what Roberta Smith referred to in her review as “a giant lampshade.” This minor inconvenience reminds the viewer of the screen’s presence as a sculptural object – one that is suspended from Marcel Breuer’s characteristic modernist open grid ceiling. This action, combined with one’s initial encounter with the film from the exterior, suggests the form is less enveloping architecture, more sculptural object. Rather than the threshold to another space implied in the entrance to Barker’s panorama or to an IMAX film, the exterior and interior Wilcox’s screen is translucent – alternately a rear-projected “shade” and front-projected 360-degree Cinemascope screen. The view becomes not the illusion achieved by the medium, but an art object itself; the screen less an entry into another space and time and more a luminous, glowing, three-dimensional membrane.
When I first read about Into the Air, I anticipated a contemporary, spatial reworking of the historical city film. Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) features a self-referential ode to both the craft of filmmaking and the modern industrial city. Vertov’s Soviet aesthetic continually reasserts the film’s materiality by using freeze frames, showing the cameraman, and even a woman at the editing table. The materiality is constructivist, almost Brechtian in its disallowance of illusion. Into the Air, on the other hand, revels in the seamlessly seductive image. Films like Man with Movie Camera and Berlin: Symphony of a City (Ruttmann, 1927) use the camera to move through space, both physically in technically dazzling traveling shots and narratively through dynamic editing. Into the Air is comparably static – more a reflection on the studio (and its relationship to the city) than a study of the city itself (as constructed in the editing room).
Much like James Nares’s recent exhibition Street at the Met, Into the Air is complemented by a selection of works chosen by Wilcox in the adjoining galleries. These include one of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, a hazy photograph of the Chrysler Building by Hiroshi Sugimoto, a painting of an ideal view from a balcony by Florine Stettheimer, and others. The inclusion of these objects and others reasserts the presence of artists’ cinema within the museum and frames Into the Air within a broader artistic investigation of place and the city.