Expanded Cinema

1 Open Beginnings

The idea of a spatially open form of filmic presentation did not first emerge in the second half of the twentieth century, but dates right back to the initial years of film. It was precisely in the early years, when film was not yet integrated into movie theater architecture, that a visionary examination of the presentation of this new medium took place. Not only the filmic image, but also the technology and the spectacle of the presentation were part of large-scale productions in penny arcades, winter gardens, and revues. However, the very different forms of the spatial experience of film were soon confronted with the rapid propagation of a cinema setting that defined itself by rows of seating, an invisible projector, and darkened screening rooms. While this setting would subsequently become the dominating form, the original variety of forms of filmic presentation disappeared in favor of what was now an established cinema paradigm. Only in few cases did approaches that went beyond the cinema apparatus survive, of which various architectural and theater designs deserve particular mention.

For the International Building Trade Exhibition in Leipzig (1913), Bruno Taut developed the Monument des Eisens (Monument of Iron) in the form of a film projection dome that did not correspond with the classic viewer arrangement of the movie theater but with that of an observatory.[1] Projections were not made onto a screen in front of the audience, but could completely surround them or span the dome’s ceiling.

In a similar spirit, Walter Gropius and Erwin Piscator somewhat later collaborated on an idea for a total theater (1927) in which the expanded film actually became a primary element for Gropius. He writes: In my ‘total theater,’ I not only envisioned the option of film projection for the three deep stages onto the entire cyclorama with the aid of a system of movable film projectors, I also plan to project films onto the walls and ceilings of the entire auditorium. . . . The projection room takes the place of the previous projection level (cinema).[2]

Works by László Moholy-Nagy may also be seen as a continuation of this concern with issues regarding the overlapping of architecture, spatial images, and projected light. Moholy-Nagy consistently explored this dynamic relationship in his publications on the relationship between urban space, photography, and montage, and in his well-known Light-Space Modulator. Furthermore, in his idea for a simultaneous or polycinema,[3] as well as in designs for his project Dynamic of the Metropolis,[4] he time and again opened up new questions with respect to light projection and the perception of space.

The treatment of questions regarding color-light projection or so-called visual music represents a further developmental line of Expanded Cinema that distances itself somewhat from architectural issues. Oriented toward the then recent development of theater stage lighting, and in particular toward the legendary color-light performances by Loïe Fuller, in the early twentieth century, artists such as Thomas Wilfred, Alexander Rimmington, and Vladimir Baranoff-Rossiné developed color organs and other technical devices (the Clavilux, the optophonic piano, etc.) initially intended to be used to create fundamentally different-colored light-similar to sounds — that could be experienced as freely floating in space.[5] This examination of the possibilities of freely playing with colors would, however, soon influence the treatment of the possibilities of presenting film. In the tension between color-light projections and abstract film and their differing esthetics, increasing understanding developed for the relationship between color-light projections and their reference to space. The impressions of these very differently arranged color-light presentations would markedly gain in importance, in particular for the experimental filmmakers of the 1950s and 1960s (such as, for instance, Jordan Belson and his considerations with respect to a space-consuming experience of film).

Long before the idea of Expanded Cinema had been formulated in full — before the coining of the term at the beginning in the late 1950s — the basic motifs of a discourse concerning the spatial expansion of film and its settings had already emerged.[6]