Mallory A. Gemmel

Affective Framing: Cinematic Experience and Exhibition Design

The current issue of the CMA Journal Affective Framing lays new ground for the journal’s editorial process. As the first guest-edited special topics issue, the direction of this publication is influenced by my research as an MA Comparative Media Arts candidate. The specific focus of this issue reflects the notion of curating visual art exhibitions through the framework of affective media. Affective Framing presents the work of five emerging scholars including one curatorial interview, three essays and an exhibition review. Each contribution offers a case-study of an exhibition ranging in form, use of space, and medium of art: from the recent São Paulo Biennial, an installation in Toronto’s Super 8 motel, an Italian exhibition of American sculptural theatre and moving-image, an experimental exhibition in New Zealand, and a partly fictional exhibit depicting the imaginary friendship between Canadian painter Tom Thompson and a young man named George Nadjiwon. These contributions question, answer, and contemplate how typical exhibition design can be rethought to include aesthetic and theoretical elements of media practices as a means to unfold affective and contemplative encounters with art. The content of the contributions take on a wider range of ‘media’ as means to assist or influence curatorial notions such as audio maps, moving-image installation, and augmented reality. The original vision of the theme grew from my own research which looks to understand the perceptual process of cinema to ask how can cinema draw diversified viewers into astute and effectual cognition? In what ways can this perceptual operation of cinema be effectively incorporated into the curation of contemporary art to help, encourage, and engage a diverse and critical contemplation of art practices?

It is with interest in exploring new methods of curating, specifically exhibition design, that I have consistently explored cinema as an affective medium with the potential to influence curatorial process. The growth of this research has stemmed from the limitations set by the traditions of white-cube design in contemporary gallery space and the affect this places on the artistic encounter. As I developed my artistic practice, I struggled in art school with making my photo-based and interactive work marketable. Meaning, it was a challenging task to create work that was critically stimulating, aesthetically interesting and conceptually sound but also a product to collect and exhibit. I challenged traditional methods of photographic display by printing small-scale silver prints, meant to be touched, passed around, housed in leather boxes, and experienced through an embodied interaction. Similar to many 1960s conceptual artists like On Kawara– practices that looked to transform the bounds of materiality by creating works that existed somewhere in between painting or photography and sculpture– the intention of this work was to identify photographs as objects (Morse 2010, 31). In addition, the purpose was to develop a direct and physical relationship between the spectator and my images. Regardless of whether one felt or thought anything for the content of photographs themselves, the experience of encountering them would incite some sort of perceived concept or sensation, be it a nostalgic reminiscence or sensory interaction with the material of archival prints. Critiques of my practice turned to a deep concern for making spectator interaction happen in gallery situations. I was often asked how I was going to ensure that the viewer would be willing to break the institutional frames that are already ingrained in their minds in order to get them to touch, approach, and believe that my art was critical.

The notion of ‘institutional frames’ in relation to contemporary art regards a series of complex relations between institutional critique and the history of art practice, the systems of display that have manifested from museum practices, the intention of curatorial directions, as well as the diverse programming of various art spaces. I consider these frames to be directly related to the actions of the spectator when encountering art. These frames include the boundaries that common exhibition design and white-cube space together impose on the art-spectator encounter. Stemming from a modernist tradition, white-cube exhibits enact a design that utilizes neutral space, places artworks singularly among this space, and presents knowledge about the artworks through text and dialogue. This specific institutional frame greatly hinders the potential for spectators to encounter art with feeling prior to discourse because the way one moves through exhibition space and interacts with art is based on information rather than experience. I contend that the initial experience of feeling can lead to a more contemplative and critical understanding of artworks and their meanings. Now, of course, we know many artists, as well as curatorial agents, experiment and fracture the conventions of white-cube spaces and have been doing so for decades by developing experimental mediums, exhibiting new media, installation art, and moving-image– many examples of this are considered within this issue. However, I follow Lucy Steeds notion that the institutional frame of modernist exhibitions which utilize essay-like theoretical context is the medium through which most art becomes known (Steeds et al 2014, 13). For this purpose, I have been looking to consider new methodologies for what cultural critic and curator Mieke Bal conceives as curatorial framing, or producing reception that arrives through process. The notion of framing puts emphasis on action, arguing for exhibitions to become events that always concern the importance of the viewer (over the artist): their context, their interest, and their understanding (Bal 2012, 179). As a spectator the experience of entering a gallery and coming into contact with art is often visual, a consistent act of looking at art objects, texts, maps, and so on. One even looks to context (written dialogue about artworks) to make sense of the work that one is looking at. Bal articulates that “‘Context’ is primarily a noun that refers to something static. It is taken to be a thing, a collection of data, whose factuality is no longer in doubt once its sources are deemed reliable” (Bal 2012, 180). Understanding the context of artworks in order to come to a greater acknowledgment about the meaning of a work or exhibition does not only happen by looking and translating static fact through didactic panels and curatorial texts. Instead, this context can be built, created and made into an event by a means of curatorial framing through affective media and thus encouraging spectators into a slower process of perception.

This idea follows Laura U. Marks’ method of Affective Analysis which works to draw the formal analysis of artworks “back into the body” (Marks 2018, 152). Here, Mark’s regards the body’s power to respond to visual and aural sensation through affects such as shortness of breath, chills, arousal, and nausea (152). The important emphasis of this method realizes that these bodily affects further constitute the production of cognitive knowledge or thought – meaning that by experiencing affect and reflecting on experience, we learn and increase our knowledge and ability to perceive thus creating meaningful reflection (152). My research as looked to cinema as a guiding case study, to reflect on how the traditional conditions of exhibition design can be rethought to guide a more affective reception, develop a processual event, and focus importance of the spectator to build context. In particular, I look to media ecologist Adrian J. Ivakhiv’s process-relational account of cinema and how the medium works to draw us into its dynamic world of thought.

According to Ivkahiv, the medium of cinema creates a composition of multiple worlds. In the first instance, a film creates its own objective lifelike existence (Ivkahiv 2013, ix). It creates places, happenings, and events that feel referential of what is real, ushering us to take a subjective part in its story (ix). The object-subject relationship that a film builds manifests into what Ivkahiv calls the film’s life-world or its interactive composite of things that are lively with sensing reactions (ix). Sitting somewhere between mimicries of reality and creations of imaginative cosmoses, cinema creates immersive spaces where we can reflect on the material, economic, and ecological objects that frame our lives, the social relationships that weave our political and personal character, and the humanity of our condition, past, present, and future. In order to drive this reflection, cinema must draw us into these worlds.

Ivkahiv contends that this attraction is due to cinematic experience – a relational unfolding of a film’s material (spectacle), social (narrative), and perceptual (semiosis) elements (ix). Extending beyond traditional film theory and the psychology of cinema that argue for the immoral powers that cinema may enforce, such as the gaze, sociophilia, persuasion, or Lacanian tendencies, Ivkahiv tells us what cinema does and lays it out bare. Instead, from an ecological and perceptual standpoint, he shows us how cinema so adequately brings us in and makes us critically think, perceive, and feel. To start, cinema is rich with spectacle that which is physically immaterial yet conceptually material as it affects our bodies with intensity–these are the sounds and images that we feel as they hit our retinas and eardrums tingling down into our chests, cores, and reactive organs (stomach, heart, lungs, genitals) (Ivakhiv 2013, 58). The sounds include those of ambiance, explosions, concentrated breath, scores of string quartets, narration, melodies of familiar songs–those ones we’ve heard on the radio, been shared through generations, found on our streaming sites and turn to when we need to grieve, or dance, or think of love. These sounds, the pause of these sounds, and even white noise always co-exist with image. Whether that image is photographic, animated, or digitally conceived they exist through duration, sequentiality, and movement. They are those photos and clips sourced directly from our news media, compounded takes of famous faces, scenes of bright and unnatural colour, and settings of familar domestic space. This co-existence between image and sound work through reaction and relational cooperation to build a film's story, its social index, and unfolding events of it’s narrative that keeps us hooked and spark our ability to perceive (Ivakhiv 2013, 59). Finally, through an enacted reception of a film’s sounds, images, and events, we are able to perceive and understand a film’s meaning through semiosis. Semiosis works to bring viewers into an inquiry of the material and social world that exists both in the film and reality (Ivakhiv 2013, 60). Through this connection between the reality of the film world and the real world, we are able to understand a film and it’s purpose– the lessons it attempts to teach, the considerations it wants us to believe, and the meaning that it works to give our lives. With the reception of cinema, a viewer is a conditional force in the creation of meaning. One brings their own pre-conditioned understanding, embodied reactions, and the ability to cognitively relate all of the elements of film together in order to generate meaning. In cinema, cinematic experience helps a viewer through the process of perception.

As I see it, curatorial process can experiment with cinematic forms to frame the experience of visual and media art. Ivakhiv’s element of spectacle comes into being through the incorporation of affective media. Auditory elements, digital images, ranges in lighting, environmental set design, incorporation of ready-made objects, and interactive media can exist within the space between artworks to initiate this unfolding perception of art. In addition, taking inspiration from the way cinema’s images move into one another, curator’s can foresee the act of physically connecting artworks, creating installations where multiple artworks touch and materially react with one another. Through the use of media as a way to connect artworks together, one is drawn through the ‘narrative’ of an exhibition due to their embodied response and engaged interest. These different examples of media, inspired from cinematic devices work to encourage the spectator with experiential information, drawing and guiding them through the complex notions of artworks. Whereas the modernist exhibition complex gives meaning to artworks immediately, this process suspends the act of perception allowing spectators the chance to implement their own context as part of the process. The encounter of art becomes something similar to the words of Susan Sontag: “an experience in the form or style of knowing something, rather than knowledge of something (like a fact or moral judgement) in itself (Filipovic et Hofmann 2013, 75). Framing artworks in this way could raise the awareness of art’s ability to help viewers consider reality, question contemporary life, and guide diverse viewers to consider art experiences as events that explore new understandings, contemplations, and meanings of the world.

The process of editing Affective Framing has directed my research into several new streams of thought. Most predominately, it has provided a closer introduction to the words of Mieke Bal. She inspires this concept of framing within my own work and as a descriptor for this issue. Her paper Curatorial Acts published in the Journal of Curatorial Studies (2012) is also foundational for the research of our many contributors. Beyond helping to further articulate my own research and ideas by providing new perspective and reference to curatorial acts across the globe, editing as a task has been incredibly informative to show the scholarly procedures of the academic world. As the MA in Comparative Media Arts prepares us to be writers, contributors, and practitioners of our research, working from the top as a guest-editor of the journal has helped me know what it takes to become published and refereed. I have also been exposed to the incredible perseverance and knowledge of my graduate peers across Canada.

This issue offers various contributions to stimulate these thoughts of questioning the tyranny of white-cube exhibitions as the primary format of curatorial framing, re-thinking curatorial narratives through the use of media, and considering how to stimulate affective reception in audiences as a means for deeply contemplative and interesting art-spectator encounters. The interview Time, Time Space presents a conversation between two New Zealand curators, Paula Booker and Laura Preston. Beginning from an explanation of Booker’s research regarding the strategic use of affect theory and time based dimensions within exhibitions, the conversation delves into discussions about moving-image installation, machinic assemblages, spatial configuration of the white-cube (black-cube), sensory experiences, and embodied perception. Through this conversation, these two thinkers offer a historical perspective of immersive exhibitions, installations, and the theories that drive them in order to argue for a focus on time rather than space in curatorial process. Alexandra Hartstone’s paper Framing Narratives and the Curatorial through Other Media: the 2018 São Paulo Biennial explores the use of white-cube infrastructure in the context of Biennial exhibitions. Examining the recent São Paulo Biennial, Affective Affinities, Hartstone proposes that the exhibition shifts traditional modes of biennial presentation by inviting seven artists to take on the roles of the curator. She argues that with the use of audio and music as framing devices in Affective Affinities, new meaning and agency of the public emerge from an otherwise “seemingly canonical white cube exhibition.” Peter Flannery’s essay Curatorial Liberties: Cinema and Augmented Reality in Betwixt and Between: An Untold Tom Thomson Story provides readers with a detailed exploration into the semi-factual and creative exhibition showcasing the work and imaginary life of Canadian artist Tom Thompson. Flannery argues that this exhibition unfolds cinematically to create an emotive, self-directed, and dynamic exhibition opening up the possibility to share unknown and unimagined stories through a historical lens. He articulates that through immersive space with the help of emerging technologies such as augmented reality, the exhibition provides new ways to experientially consider both colonial and indigenous narratives. Taking a slightly different approach, Douglas Dumais paper The Accelerated Individual: Utopianism in Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin’s Sculptural Theatre, examines the utopic cinematic essence of sculptural theatre and moving-image installation. He composes the argument that the collective work of Fitch and Trecartin attempts to bring spectatorship into a utopic experience and collective emancipation from capitalism, but due to the conditions of curated gallery space, the success of their work to truly exemplify an experience of utopic emancipation is unimaginable. Instead, he articulates that their work offers a limited threshold out of the structural compression of capitalism, suggesting the possibilities to rethink the individualistic structures of reception in moving-image installation such as the use of headphones. Finally, Theresa Wang’s review of Toronto Images Festival’s Public Intimacies, vividly describes the use of non-gallery space as a means to stimulate affective exhibition experiences. Walking us through the installed moving-image works of Public Intimacies at the Super 8 Motel, Wang argues that the context and meaning of the exhibition are constructed through a connection between specific space and place. Through the use of the semi-public place of the motel room, a viewer manifests their own subjectivity into space, creating a stimulating and intimate experience as well as understanding of the exhibition and its works.

Traditional formats of white-cube exhibitions have been historically productive for both art and curatorial practices but by thinking through a medium such as cinema– that works towards and succeeds at affecting plural audiences– exhibitions and art practice can communicate with viewers through affect, feeling, and emotion prior to static dialogue. Ultimately, this sort of curatorial practice allows for more perspectives, meanings, and possibilities to manifest in the rhetoric and projects of the art-world, while also giving space for the spectator to conditionally be apart of art and exhibitions’ meanings.

Affective Framing shows us the ways that curatorial and artistic practice have already been doing these things. The contributions of the issue continue to open up the discussion surrounding affect in exhibitions, adapting to technology for new ways of experiencing, the consideration of sensation as a driving force of meaning and connection, and to continually question the traditions of the past in order to move forward and perpetuate learning. Most importantly, Affective Framing argues for the importance of spectatorship in art institutions. Without the subjective presence of the audience, art would not contain meaning. As curators, how can we frame the way that people come to encounter art? As Bal contends art is subject to sociality, therefore curatorial acts should make audiences feel the connection that artworks create between other artworks, the conflicts of the world, and us (2012, 191).

Works Cited

Bal, Mieke. "Curatorial Acts." The Journal of Curatorial Studies 1, no. 2 (2012): 179-92. Accessed November 25, 2018. doi:doi: 10.1386/jcs.1.2.179_1.

Filipovic, Elena. “What is an Exhibition?” Ten Fundamental Questions of Curating. ed. Jens Hoffmann. Milan: Mousse Publishing, 2013.

Ivakhiv, Adrian J. Ecologies of the Moving Image: Cinema, Affect, Nature. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013.

Marks, Laura U. “Affective Analysis.” Routledge Handbook of Interdisciplinairy Research Methods. Ed Ceila Lury et al. 1st ed. S.l.: Routledge, 2017.

Morse, Rebecca. “Photography/Sculpture in Contemporary Art.” American Art 24, no. 1 (2010): 31-34.


Mallory A. Gemmel is an emerging writer and curator from Vancouver, Canada. She is a current MA in Comparative Media Arts Candidate at Simon Fraser University. In 2016, she acquired a BFA in Photography and Curatorial Studies at Emily Carr University where she focused on notions of experience — gaining a tendency to believe in a metering of veracity, questioning the truths of the world through making photographs, discussing with peers, and writing. As an arts practitioner, she has taken on numerous roles including archivist, programming assistant, and collective member, interning at various institutions in Vancouver. Her recent research focuses on the perceptual and affective process of moving-image and cinema, while also contemplating the contemporary conditions that surround curatorial practice.

Download the PDF