I went to an art gallery yesterday.
It only had one room.
The room was dark.
In the room they were screening a film on a loop.
Today's post isn't about the film.
It's about what happens when you go into a dark room in an art gallery to watch a looping film.
1) The room where the film is showing needs to be dark, so sometimes there's a dogleg passage on the way in to try to keep daylight out. More usually entering the room involves opening a door, or perhaps finding your way through a curtain. It can take several goes to find the right way through the curtain.
2) Unless the film is really bright, the room always appears dark when you walk in. This is particularly awkward if you've never been inside the room before, because you have no idea what lies ahead of you. You know the gallery won't have put a trip hazard in front of the door, but you still edge forward as if they might have, or simply stop just inside the room until your eyes get used to the gloom.
3) Once your eyes get used to the gloom, you face the dilemma of whether to advance further inside the room, or simply stay where you are. A row of seats might help lure you further in... but only if some are empty. Often it's hard to see if any are empty.
4) Or do you stand? Some people prefer to stand, rather than sit, because they can hide up the back and because it's easier to leave. But if the film is a long one then yes, grabbing a seat (when one becomes available) is the more appealing option.
5) Later on, once your eyes are used to the dark, all of this looks ludicrous. Everyone successive entrant immediately stops by the door, afraid to proceed further, then sits or stands in the general vicinity. The room may be huge, but the majority still cluster into one corner because to go further would be to make a fuss.
6) Advancing further into the room has its own perils, as it's all too easy to enter the projection beam. Sometimes this has to be deliberate, because it's the only way across the room, so you dash as fast as you dare. But more often than not it's unintentional... OMG there's my silhouette on the big screen, I bet everybody watching secretly hates me.
7) Because the film's on a loop, you almost certainly haven't arrived at the start of it. This is a particular problem if the film has some kind of narrative. All you can do is try to work out what's been happening before you walked in, and pick up the story, and make the best of the rest. It's not what the artist who made the film intended.
8) It's often at this point that you realise you have no idea how long the film is. If only you'd read the spiel on the wall outside before you came in, then at least you'd know whether it's a five minute-r or the full artistic hour-and-a-bit. Without this knowledge it's really hard to know how long to stick it out.
9) What you usually end up doing is sitting waiting for the film to loop round again, because that's the time to leave. Does this look like the bit where you came in? If only you'd been focusing on the screen for the first minute when you came in, not simply how dark the room was and where you were going to sit.
10) If the credits pop up... if there are credits... the key decision becomes whether to wait through the bit at the end where the screen goes blank and then watch the film from the beginning. You've already seen the end, so is it worth hanging around until the loop begins again? Or is this the best time to stand up and get out?
11) Unless you see the opening titles... if there are opening titles... you may never know what the film was actually about. Often with these films in art galleries it's impossible to know what the artist was thinking unless specifically told. You should have read the spiel on the wall before you came in, but it's too late now.
12) Sometimes there's a programme, or a leaflet, or some other handout explaining what the film is all about. You pick it up and take it into the room with you, only to discover of course that the room is dark and you can't read any of it. Dammit. You'll have to read it after you leave... it might explain a lot of what you've just seen.
13) If there are more visitors than seats, a game plays out every time somebody leaves. Do you nip in and grab a seat when one becomes vacant, or do you leave it for the next person who stumbles in? Best not move around too much once you're in the room, eh?
14) For a lot of people these days, sitting in a dark room watching a film is quite tricky, especially if that film is obtuse and not especially engaging. Eventually, or not so eventually if the spirit is weak, out comes their phone and a rectangle of light illuminates the gloom. Annoying, and oblivious.
15) Perhaps there's something essential on Facebook which must be checked. Perhaps Twitter is more interesting than the abstract drama playing out on screen - sometimes that's not difficult. As for why you'd hold up your phone and take a photo of the film, though, that's more mysterious.
16) Pity the gallery attendant who has to stay in the room and watch this film over and over and over again. They can't have their phone on because they're paid to behave. If only they were somewhere else in the gallery that wasn't dark... or even better, sat at the main desk on the computer surfing the internet.
17) If the film's quite long, and not especially thrilling, eventually the game becomes how long you can stick it out. Walking out early is for wimps, surely, as if confessing you've failed to see the 'art' in the narrative. Alternatively it's just cutting your losses.
18) Couples are sometimes better than singles at staying to the bitter end. Singles can walk out on a whim, whereas couples have added peer pressure not to be the one to disappoint the other by cracking first. Plus it's not always easy to judge your partner's body language in the dark and know when it's time to go.
19) If the film's worthy but dull, one technique for keeping your mind occupied is to observe how many different postures people are using to sit on the floor. Cross legged. Kneeling forward. Leaning back supported by palms. Resting with back against the wall. If you ever get to making these kinds of observations, the film has failed.
20) What often intrigues me, when sat in a room in the dark in a gallery, is how much display space has been taken up simply to show a single film. Numerous paintings or sculptures could have been fitted into the same space, but instead the curator has chosen to screen one film. That's fine if the film is compelling, of course. Otherwise, well, my mind does tend to wander.