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A Drive-In Theater Built from Our Empire of Trash

Empire Drive-In
Empire Drive-In (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)

While the drive-in movie theaters of Kodak-colored dreams are cluttered with classic cars, their heavy bodies dunked in primary colors, the cars at Empire Drive-In are all recent cast-offs, the engines in their wrecked bodies silent, personal artifacts from previous owners left behind on the floorboards. The temporary installation at the New York Hall of Science in Flushing Meadows, Queens, is somewhere between a monument to reuse and a statement on waste, with the cars representing “a part of our ever-expanding empire of trash,” as its creators state. For most of the month of October, it’s serving as a participatory screening location for a series of film-centered events.

Empire Drive-In
Opening night at Empire Drive-In

Creators Jeff Stark and Todd Chandler collectively shared more details with Hyperallergic on the idea behind Empire Drive-In:

In one way, Empire Drive-In is a series of questions. One of the things we’re really interested in is how we, as Americans, resolve this separation of public space and personal space. For us, this is one of the central questions in all kinds of discussions about urbanism, about how we can be part of a collective, or a commons, and also find our place as individuals. The drive-in is a reconciliation: We come together as a whole to experience something, to participate, and yet we also have our own personal space, our own car, our own narrative. In this way, Empire Drive-In becomes a sort of real-life model of a nostalgic past and one kind of almost utopian future, albeit a utopian future in which the building blocks are our own garbage.

As they note on their site, it wasn’t actually the rise in fuel prices or evolving cinema technology that killed most drive-ins, but the desire of developers for their land. Yet the change from cinema as spectacle to an experience of the small screen, often alone rather than with a responsive audience, has definitely altered the experience of seeing film.

The first iteration of Empire Drive-In was built to screen Chandler’s film Flood Tide at the 2010 01SJ Biennial in San Jose, California. The film is about DIY boats built by a collective, in a concept by the artist Swoon, and floated on the Hudson River; the drive-in responded to the same ideas of reuse, exploration, and spaces on the margins. It was resurrected in 2011 in an empty lot that had once had a drive-in, and then at the 2012 Abandon Normal Devices Festival in Manchester, before bringing its 40-foot screen to Queens.

Empire Drive-In
Concession stand
Empire Drive-In
Greg Saunier’s Casio Orchestra

The programming includes collaborations with Rooftop Films, Light Industry, Greg Saunier of Deerhoof (who drummed on a car along with a chorus of Casio keyboards for opening night), Flux Factory, Transportation Alternatives, and the drive-in’s host, the New York Hall of Science, and ranges from silent films to sound projects, to music experiments, to B-movies, as well as screenings that fit with the mood of the drive-in. Chandler and Stark emphasized that the desired experience, despite some media responses that say otherwise, is not just a retro throwback:

People see a drive-in and they immediately think of Johnny Rockets or Grease or Happy Days or Mel’s Diner. Local TV stations love to air segments about how you can “go back in time” at our drive-in. They’re missing the point. Certainly we’re playing with nostalgia; we both spent time as kids in drive-ins (and still go to them today), and they bring back a lot of memories. But we’re interested in a more critical nostalgia. Were the good old days really all that good? Is there an end to all this trash? Is there a reason why we still need to experience this kind of spectacle together?

Empire Drive-In
Another view of the concession stand
Empire Drive-In
Cars at the Empire Drive-In

“I am interested in creating culture, not just objects or one-off performances,” Stark said, and the creation of a space for others to experience and work in is central to Empire Drive-In. The sprawling installation on two acres was built with an estimated 100 tons of materials by about a dozen artists and collaborators and a whole “corps of volunteers” in just under two weeks. An effort was made to have as many of the materials as possible be recycled. “We could have actually made it a real drive-in, or asked a sponsor to fill it up with new Scions or something,” Chandler and Stark explained. “But there are stories in these materials; old things have their own life to them. Plus, we’d feel pretty sheepish building a sculpture that asks critical questions about concepts like planned obsolescence and our own waste stream while just making a new pile of trash.”

Empire Drive-In
Watching the film on the wrecked cars

“Instead of posting wall text about creative reuse, we have people sitting in cars that are one step away from the crusher, watching a film on a screen built from salvaged wood, scored by an orchestra playing technically obsolete keyboards,” they continued. “On another night we are showing two documentaries: The Last Truck, about the closing of a GM plant in Ohio, and Foreign Parts, which spends a year at Willets Point, an industrial neighborhood just next door to Empire Drive-In and currently under threat of eminent domain. Those films are introduced by community organizers from Willets Point, and the whole show is preceded by a kind of forklift ballet.”

Empire Drive-In
Empire Drive-In, with a NYSCI rocket in the background

So at their drive-in, you can climb on top of the cars, or lay back on their hoods, or watch from the front seats while audio trickles out of a little installed radio, while the screen constructed from reclaimed wood looms up in front of the rockets on the front lawn of the New York Hall of Science, and for the moment there’s a place made that they hope will linger in some way long after the cars return to the junkyard.

Empire Drive-In
Ticket booth at Empire Drive-In

Empire Drive-In is at the New York Hall of Science (47-01 111th Street, Flushing Meadows Park, Queens) through October 20.

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