On Morgan Fisher’s Lecture at the Guggenheim

Luis Recoder

Printed in MFJ No. 42 (Fall 2004) Video: Vintage and Current

“It is the overcoming of theater that modernist sensibility finds most exalting and that it experiences as the hallmark of high art in our time. There is, however, one art that, by its very nature, escapes theater entirely – the movies.”

– Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood”

Contrary to Michael Fried, Morgan Fisher argues that the movies does not escape theater, at least not entirely. If just one film can demonstrate that the movies does not entirely overcome theater then all movies are essentially theatrical. That one film is non other than Fisher’s very own Projection Instructions. Counter to Fried’s claim that in “the movies the actors are not physically present”, Fisher’s film unveils the physically present projectionist. This is achieved by means of simple instructions that the projectionist must carry out, a kind of “script” that appears doubly on the screen and by voiceover. Basic operations such as throwing the projector lens in and out of focus or turning the projector off and on are designed to call attention to the invisible “actor” who is present during the film’s projection.

If just one film is capable of demonstrating theatricality at the movies it is from the perspective of Fisher’s exemplary film that all projected films harbor the potential to be understood and experienced as theater. Once you’ve experienced Projection Instructions a trip to the movies will never be quite the same, at least not the same thing twice. A different projectionist or even the same projectionist will never perform the same film in exactly the same way. And to de-anthropomorphize the scenario, no two projectors will ever be alike, even the same models. Which is to say that the props of cinema are just as important to acknowledge as the star-projectionist. Thus Fried’s claim that “the screen is not experienced as a kind of object existing, so to speak, in a specific physical relation to us” is in fact a specific object to be perceived as such.

If a film can shed light on the material conditions of the cinema space, the movie theater itself, then it cannot overcome theater.
Fisher is not interested so much in theater per se as he is in the conditions that stage and continue to re-stage cinema’s materiality. (Projection Instructions is a film that sets out to produce, or better “perform”, precisely that materiality.) That theater in film cannot be overcome is Fisher’s way of aligning his practice with the “literalists” Fried sets out to attack in his groundbreaking essay on Minimalism. How this alliance comes about is of no surprise to anyone slightly interested in experimental film and stumbling upon the brief passage on cinema in “Art and Objecthood”. In particular Fried’s statement that “cinema, even at its most experimental, is not a modernist art” coupled with the overall argument that the theatricality characteristic of Minimalists such as Judd, Morris, and Andre, can in no way correspond to a Modernist approach, much less contribute to it.

As Fried describes Minimalism’s theatricality along the lines of a staging or performing of the object, of object-hood, and makes an abrupt sigh, calling out “experimental cinema”, the experimental film-maker/viewer must find it baffling as to why the canonical critic of Modernism refuses cinema even the slightest chance of staging its own material performance. Fisher’s project (if it can be called that) is to tease out the immanent theatrics for his practice. This he does by collapsing the Friedian terms of theatricality with a materialist ontology of the cinema. In this way Fisher adheres to the Friedian conception of a “phenomenology of the cinema that concentrated on similarities and differences between it and the theater” – only the part about “difference” is cast out of Fisher’s contribution to soft-focus upon the “similarities” that Fried decided to screen out of his footnote on “the movies.”