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Dreamland was one of three Coney Island amusement parks where early-20th-century audiences could experience the “technology of the fantastic,” as architect Rem Koolhaas defines it, in his 1978 book Delirious New York. More than just carousels and trampolines, the attractions exhibited on Dreamland’s grounds were so many examples of early and expanded cinema. These attractions, Koolhaas writes, could “reproduce experience and fabricate almost any sensation,” as well as “sustain any number of ritualistic performances that exorcise the apocalyptic penalty of the metropolitan condition.”
Russian writer Maxim Gorky visited the Coney Island parks in a widely publicized 1906 trip (local papers dubbed him “the Bitter One”). He collected his reflections in “Boredom,” a piece whose haughty crankiness set the tone for generations of intellectual distaste for popular culture and cinema. The spectacle of the parks, writes Gorky, “drags tens of thousands of people into its somber dance, and sweeps them into a will-less heap, as the wind sweeps the rubbish of the streets.” The nerves of the masses, he continues, are “racked by an intricate maze of motion and dazzling fire.” Mentions of fire abound in Gorky’s commentary; as he memorably concludes, the disappointing parks ultimately inspire a “desire for a living, beautiful fire, a sublime fire, which should free the people from a varied boredom.”
In May 1911, following a short circuit in the lighting system powering the “End of the World” attraction, Dreamland burned to the ground. Three years later, the space became a parking lot.
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The short-lived Dreamland park is at once namesake, model, and muse for Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905–2016, a large-scale exhibition running at the Whitney Museum in New York. Dreamlands uses immersion as a catchall for a more expansive conception of moving image art, one that cuts across time and technology, encompassing early tinkering and contemporary directions alike. Curated by Chrissie Iles, Dreamlands maps this immersive moving image art as a play of experimental sight and utopian sense, as well as a dance of light, shadow, and sound. The exhibition deftly shows how this art was — and still is — engendered and molded by its relationship with a host of different technologies, from material film to digital photogrammetry and virtual reality, from hand-drawn animation to 3D modeling, sculptures of pure light, and beyond.
Not unlike Gorky’s “intricate maze of motion and dazzling fire,” Dreamlands is a multimedia jungle teeming with droning sound and flashing light, featuring the work of almost 40 different artists, from contemporary practitioners like Hito Steyerl and Lynn Hershman Leeson to such mid-20th-century figures as Oskar Fischinger and Walt Disney.
Perhaps the loudest, largest, and most unambiguously immersive work on display is Bruce Conner’s “CROSSROADS” (1976). The film’s pulsating synth score, composed by Terry Riley and Patrick Gleason, has an almost gravitational pull to it. Our perception of the film’s imagery — slow-motion replays of US atomic bomb testing off the Bikini atoll — is decisively affected by the swirl of its magnetic sounds. Simply put, what otherwise would seem horrifying is instead spellbinding. Conner’s brand of hippieish Dada distorts world-historical destruction into an entrancing phantasmagoria, a sleight of hand that can’t help but seem all the more ominous today. Straightaway, Conner’s film demonstrates one of the more ambivalent qualities of immersive moving image art: a stupefaction that inhibits or melts away thought. As Gorky recounts of his Dreamland experience, “The visitor is stunned; his consciousness is withered by the intense gleam; his thoughts are routed from his mind; he becomes a particle in the crowd.”
Stan VanDerBeek’s “Movie Mural” (1968) is right around the corner from “CROSSROADS.” An early experiment in multichannel film and video installation, “Movie Mural” features 10 projectors splashing looping and flashing images of all kinds onto seven screens and the walls around them. It might be tempting to see in “Movie Mural” something like the contemporary condition of the image — a sort of rudimentary Tumblr-scape or a glitched-out Times Square. But its positioning in Dreamlands gives its significance another turn. Occupying a leaky hallway between several rooms, with sound and light pouring in from every opening, “Movie Mural” is best characterized not by immersion, but by distraction. Riley and Gleason, for example, are still in earshot, inviting us linger a little longer among mushroom plumes and atomic tidal waves.
Observing this hectic scene (one among several others in the show), we’re introduced to a theme that runs to Dreamlands’ core: there’s no such thing as immersion without distraction. A review in the Wall Street Journal begrudges the latter, noting that “some works feel lost in [Dreamlands’] dense, at times cacophonous labyrinth” — a sentiment echoed by critics elsewhere. Doubtless, Dreamlands isn’t readily allowing of contemplative appreciation of many of its individual works. Though this may be an indication of mediocre curatorial practice elsewhere, in Dreamlands, it feels very much like a deliberately manufactured effect. Here, the ghost of Coney Island’s Dreamland can be discerned in full force: if the show is packed too tightly with light and sound, it’s exactly as an exhibitionist, fairground-style cinema of attractions would be. More than a nod to a forgotten relic of popular entertainment, Dreamlands’ chaos is also reflective of a psychological state. The spaces between each artwork are animated with an ambient clamor, one analogous to the constant rustling of our always distracted, ever connected 24/7 time. This energy is broadcast in Lorna Mills’s Ways of Something, a playful, epic work that runs John Berger’s famous BBC documentary through the mesh of our weird, anxious, and sensory overloaded ecosystem.
As it happens, many of the newer works on display in Dreamlands seem cannily aware of the inevitable threat of distraction, even guarding against it at the architectural level by snugly ensconcing audiences in their folds. “Easternsports” (2014) — a collaboration between Alex Da Corte (sets, costume, video), Jayson Musson (script), and Devonté Hynes (score) — is a four-channel, 152-minute video projected onto four walls that make up a porous, disjointed pavilion. The work’s absurdist, metronomic choreography — Tim and Eric meets Oskar Schlemmer, slowed by half — marries well with Hynes’s droning musical piece, which envelopes “Easternsports” in a sort of sonic cocoon. A more literal cocoon is presented by Ben Coonley’s “Trading Futures” (2016), perhaps the most technically adventurous work in Dreamlands. It’s a 360-degree 3D video — a sardonic “lesson” in market strategy and the dialectics of seeing — projected onto the interior of a cardboard geodesic dome.
Hito Steyerl’s “Factory of the Sun” (2015), meanwhile, is housed in a totally enclosed, darkened, motion-capture studio adorned with a Tron-like luminescent grid. Like a lot of Steyerl’s other work, “Factory” is brimming with speed, intensity, rhythm, fucked-up parody, scathing critique, and manic disorientation. Labor exploitation, surveillance, extrajudicial execution, and the future of war and policing (the two rendered almost indistinguishable) are approached via compulsively dancing YouTube bedroom celebrities decked out in full-body spandex, newscasts featuring a “German twat, full-on Fritz,” and casual references to Japanese role-playing games. Scenes of Fritz delivering a special news report are intercut with drone shots of a laborer-dancer being assassinated over and over again by the same unmanned aerial vehicle that’s filming him. Each time the worker is murdered and the video cuts back to Fritz’s commentary, the markets can be seen rising (+150, +200, and so on). “He was most probably a terrorist,” Fritz blusters. “OK, maybe … But we have to strike preliminarily. This is democracy. I can say anything I want.”
As may be evident from the small selection of works discussed here, Dreamlands is, thematically, a little all over the place; its net is cast dizzyingly wide. Seemingly every wall text introduces yet another tangle of themes: utopia and dystopia, cyborgs and science fiction, artifice and nature, image culture and patriarchal control, space and surveillance, the materiality of cinema, the extinction of this materiality, the history of seeing, the future of work. But even if it’s at times unwieldy, it’s refreshing to see a large exhibition risk such clumsiness, striving to grasp the whole of what it’s after, rather than reducing its aspects to neatly narrativized, palatable little chunks. (The conjunction of moving image art and immersion and technology is, after all, pretty expansive terrain.) This approach, moreover, only further encourages museumgoers to cleave their own paths through the exhibition and form their own stories — no two the same — yielding an interactivity more potent, if significantly less obvious, than that achieved by the desperate, gimmicky social media campaigns (Instagram this! Snapchat that! Don’t forget to use our hashtag!) regularly foisted on visitors these days. Scorning any pandering route, Dreamlands instead asks us to revel in its disorder and embrace the shape-shifting nature of moving image art’s motley forms.
Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905–2016 continues at the Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street, Meatpacking District, Manhattan) through February 5.
Correction: This piece originally misstated Stan VanDerBeek’s first name. We regret the error. It has been fixed.