As the lights of the movie theater begin to dim and people shuffle to their seats, no image appears. The sound of the movie begins to emerge from the theater’s speakers, but without its visual accompaniment it seems somehow louder and harsher. The effect is disorientating and confusing. Despite there being no image on the screen and knowing that none will appear, I still look ahead for most of A Movie Will Be Shown Without the Picture, Louise Lawler’s prankish expanded cinema experiment. The screen, only visible in faint outline from where I’m sitting, is like a dismissive schoolteacher who refuses to answer your questions. Its blankness feels cruel. The ritualized experience of the movies has been stripped of one of its most crucial components, and audience members are left to sit there, lost in their own thoughts, listening and trying to find their way through the darkness.
Lawler’s suspicion of the image is nothing new. In WHY PICTURES NOW, her career survey currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, the Pictures Generation artist is again and again engaged in taking the familiar — a famous work of art, different forms of banal ephemera — and making it abnormal through clever subversion. There is a timid jostling of her male peers, a slight nudge off the pedestal of reverence, which is evident in much of her work and makes it eminently appealing — even if some of its institutional critique is diminished under the museum’s glow of prestige. But what is often obscured in Lawler’s work is the way that it’s not only questioning the apparatus of making and displaying art, but also its reception — the formalized way that we, the spectators, are looking.
This is most obvious in A Movie Will Be Shown Without the Picture, whose title says everything you need to know: the audience watches a movie with no images, only listening to its soundtrack. There is no announcement of what movie you are sitting down to see, either before or after. First presented in 1979 at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, California, it has been restaged only a few other times since — once at New York’s long-defunct Bleecker Street Cinema in 1983 and in Amsterdam in 2012 — and always features a new film selected by Lawler. Previous “screenings” have included John Huston’s The Misfits (1961), The Hustler (1961), Saturday Night Fever (1977), and the Chuck Jones animated short, What’s Opera Doc? (1957).
For the latest installment of the project, which occurred on Tuesday (MoMA will host another “screening” on May 10), Lawler chose to open again with What’s Opera Doc?, before the main feature, Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957). The reason for the choice here, if you’re familiar with the film, is obvious: it follows the rising popularity of a guitar-playing hayseed inmate nicknamed Lonesome Rhodes as he moves from radio to television to eventually coaching presidential candidates how to appeal to the silent majority, and coming close to running for office himself. It was an eerily prescient look at the conflation of pop culture and political consciousness. As J. Hoberman has noted, the film has been re-released multiple times since its initial theatrical run, coinciding with the emergence of potentially dangerous political demagogues like George Wallace. Kazan, years later, jokingly admitted that the film was basically about Ronald Regan when he was still tucking in a chimpanzee, and the film scarily mirrors aspects of our current farcical presidential nightmare under Donald Trump. Lawler’s work has become overtly political in recent years (a recent exhibition was simply titled No Drones), and the choice of A Face in the Crowd echoes those increasing concerns.
Beyond the contemporary resonance of the selection, it’s difficult to figure out what we’re supposed to be getting from this experience. While the concealment of the image certainly heightens our sense of the sound, I was still creating images in my head while staring at the blank screen. And, having seen A Face in the Crowd before, I was at least hazily familiar with certain scenes and was able to conjure them in some form. The lack of images didn’t force me to question the materialization of the medium, but simply fill in the emptiness with my own images. Maybe that was the point — my reliance on images to accompany the experience forced me into an active role of creating my own where none existed. “There is no such thing as empty space,” Susan Sontag once wrote. “As long as a human eye is looking, there is always something to see. To look at something which is ‘empty’ is still to be looking, still to be seeing something — if only the ghosts of one’s own expectations.”
What one sees when nothing is on the cinema screen is not uniform. More people than usual checked their phones with more regularity during Tuesday’s event, while others apparently felt more comfortable chatting than they might have in a traditional screening. A few walked out, clearly bored after only a few minutes. One audience member took pictures of the blank screen, maybe hoping to summon an image. Unlike something like Derek Jarman’s Blue (1993), which uses its solid-color screen to reflect on the filmmaker’s experience with HIV and AIDS, or parts of Douglas Gordon’s recent I Had Nowhere to Go that consider the fading memories of its subject, Jonas Mekas, and his later obsession with capturing images before they disappeared, Lawler’s A Movie Will Be Shown Without the Picture, by using a preexisting film, turns the encounter into something more akin to the Surrealist practice of walking in and out of movie theaters. This can be helpful from time to time, challenging preconceived notions of how we watch films and how they work on us by fragmenting the dreamlike lucidity of the moviegoing experience. But this doesn’t necessarily result in a tangible new way of looking. It just breaks down what we have and leaves us with the pieces.
Louise Lawler’s A Movie Will Be Shown Without the Picture plays at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) on May 10 at 7pm. The exhibition Louise Lawler: WHY PICTURES NOW continues at the museum through July 30.