Arts & Culture

Magic Lantern Cinema showcases experimental films

Supported by Forbes Center for Culture and Media, Providence program provides venue for progressive films

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Poetry, discourse, commentaries and analysis: Literature often takes forms that deviate from a traditional narrative to explore arcane and obscure notions. For cinema, these ideas seem less approachable, but experimental films aim to break such barriers. Originating with the avant-garde movement in Europe in the 1920s, these films drop linear narratives to employ abstract techniques that challenge traditional cinema.

A Providence-based project, Magic Lantern Cinema, strives to provide such a platform for  local audiences.  The cinema provides programs such as curated short films, experimental features and multimedia performances. The cinema’s newest feature “Masses and Swarms” exhibited at the Cable Car Cinema last week, and Magic Lantern plans to roll out three more shows this spring.

Artists Ben Russell and Carrie Collier founded Magic Lantern in 2004. Russell served as an adjunct professor at Brown and borrowed facilities from the Department of Modern Culture and Media to present the early screenings, which predominantly featured donated works from local artists. Collier, a print artist, started making posters to reimburse those who had offered their works for free. The tradition was preserved and has blossomed into the program’s beloved poster series — now used mainly for marketing — accentuating the themes of each screening.

The film series is run by a revolving group of students, artists and local residents in Providence, and is currently organized by Seth Watter, Beth Capper and Faith Holland.

Extra funding gradually flowed in as Magic Lantern grew. The Malcolm S. Forbes Center for Culture and Media Studies started to help the program financially, and the event was also selected as a grantee of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. Watter, who is one of the program’s main organizers, said the funding mainly goes into the screening process. The operation includes multiple steps: purchasing the experimental works distributed by major traders — such as The Film-Makers’ Cooperative — renting screening venues and giving commissions for poster designs. The program also pays curators for their works.

“Curating a program is a lot of work,” Watter said. “Every program has an individual and personal stamp on it. That contribution should be acknowledged as much as the fees for the films themselves.”

In these experimental films, the curator connects and juxtaposes the pieces, giving the works more layers and dimensions.

“The way you are putting these things together gives a new context to the selection of materials. In a way, it is a creative act,” Watter said.

“We are interested in seeing how these works can circulate and speak to each other across different generations, different countries and different national contexts,” he added. “By curating you can show the works in their new light.”

In addition to members affiliated with the program, Magic Lantern Cinema also invites students from other departments and local artists to curate, keeping the series diverse and compelling. Magic Lantern has recruited works of distinctive themes, including the history of feminism and contemporary digital videos. But it has also branched out into experimental media: pieces interacting with projection techniques or exploring the spiritual connotation of films using antiquated three-dimensional technologies.

Watter curated the most recent program “Swarms and Masses.” The series boasts many characteristic experimental films. One second viewers see scribbled words dancing and bouncing inside the frame of the screen, and the next moment they are confronted with swarms of dots erupting and swimming aimlessly. It is quite difficult to detect the coherence between various clips without knowing the context.

Watter said this is one of his favorite works, and he was inspired by the book “Crowds and Power” by Nobel Prize-winning author Elias Canetti.  Consisting of both digital and celluloid works, the project centers on various senses of crowds. From human cells to animal herds, the program is a contemplation of forms of groups, especially those seen frequently in traditional cinemas.

The upcoming shows will continue to live up to Magic Lantern’s innovative spirit. The next show, entitled “Since You’ve Been Gone,” will be played March 12 at the Black Box Theater at AS220. Curated by former grad student Nathan Lee MA’10, the show will concentrate on bringing together contemporary art and Internet culture from 2005, which is when YouTube became more popular.

Chris Lee ’05 GS, who is studying English, also plans on making a custom zine to accompany the program. Ensuing shows will feature Chicago artist Fern Silva’s experimental works and the newest Magic Lantern member, Thomas Pringle, whose work sheds light on media and ecology.

Though Magic Lantern Cinema has existed for more than a decade, it continues to operate at a rather small scaleand currently has no intention of expanding in other areas. Watter said this is due to both limited resources and the type of works it envisions doing.

Magic Lantern aims to keep making an impact on the University community. Capper said involvement with the program will bring a lot to the MCM department in terms of professional development for both undergraduates and grad students, as it is an accessible and open forum for curatorial work that is well-respected in the national film circuit.

Involvement in the group “will teach anyone interested in curation and programming a lot about what it means to do that kind of work, as well as the day to day operations of an organization that runs on grant funding,” Capper said. “You have to be able to manage a budget, and write grant proposals. This kind of experience is so valuable for anyone working in arts or culture.”

Magic Lantern also strives to have its works more deeply ingrained within Providence’s artistic communities and to expand within the city’s general population.

“I want to promote and program shows that have a pull or traction with people here, as well as open up the series to the community in terms of programming,” Capper said. “Successful curatorial work is partly about having a good sense of the community around you and really collaborating.”

The program has served as a community for many participants. “I am particularly inspired by my peers, who are routinely breaking new ground conceptually and technologically,” Holland said.

  • do a better job proofreading

    it’s “crowds and power” not “crowds and powers”

    • Zack

      My bad. Thanks for the advice.