Film, memory and cognition: visiting the Museum of the Moving Image

posted on 05 May 2014 02:00 by Hanna Hoelling
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By Cabelle Ahn and Linden Hill


Although located off the beaten path, the Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI) is certainly worth the hike. Situated in the former Astoria Studio complex, which Paramount built in the 1920s, MoMI is a museum dedicated to the material culture of moving images. Our Beyond the Object Principle class had the pleasure of meeting with Chief Curator David Schwartz, Associate Curator of Digital Media Jason Eppink, and the Registrar to learn more about how this museum operates and organizes its collection.

It was quite interesting that, almost immediately after we began our discussion, Schwartz emphasized that MoMI is on the opposite end of the museum spectrum than MoMA because it is “not an art museum all of the time.” While MoMA collects the films themselves, MoMI collects the tangible evidence of film, which includes everything from old film projectors and advertisements to costumes, makeup, and masks, but not the actual films themselves. As the MoMI focuses on the “language” of moving image, it spans the fields of art, technology, science, popular history, popular culture, and entertainment.

One of the highlights of our visit was speaking with Jason Eppink about his installation The Reaction GIF: Moving Image as Gesture.


Interested how GIFs have emerged as a new visual vocabulary in the age of social media, Eppink decided to engage with the social networks of people who regularly interact with GIFs; he actually posted a “call for GIFs” on Reddit, where he asked Reddit users to select iconic GIFs and write a short caption or definition of the action in it. Eppink eventually narrowed down the dozens of entries to only 37, which are now projected in a map-like format in the museum’s entrance foyer. Each person who submitted a GIF is credited by his or her Reddit username, which illustrates the possibility of having many “authors” of one work of installation art. Even though the flashing images that ran at different durations became slightly headache inducing after a few minutes, it was interesting to think about and visualize how GIFs are new form of nonverbal communication, and are a new category of the gestural performance of emotion that can sometimes convey more than text alone. In contrast to some of the exhibitions we walked through at the MoMI, which focused more on historic films, this installation created a dialogue around a very contemporary topic that would resonate with a wide audience.

Another enriching aspect of our visit was a behind-the-scenes look at the registration process. The Registrar explained and showed us examples of how the objects and the media in the museum were prepared and packed to go on loan. It was fascinating to consider the diversity of objects in the Museum of Moving Image collection and even how the traditional classifications of other fine art museums seemed to be eroded here, testifying to the expansive practices of the MoMI.

At the end of our visit, our class walked through the exhibition Jim Cambell: Rhythms of Perception on the top floor. Campbell uses digital media to address questions of memory, cognition, vision and interactivity.


Particularly profound was his large scale installation Last day in the Beginning of March (2003) which combined light, sounds, and small digital displays with words in order to chronicle the last day of the life of the artist’s brother through a poetic narrative. Slightly reminiscent of the big blockbuster installations such as the Rain Room, Campbell’s installation seemed to restore a human dimension to digital technology.


Another work that captured our interest was Shadow for Heisenberg (1993-4), a sculpture of a Buddha in a lit glass cube that became increasingly more opaque as we walked closer. The work conceptually referenced Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle which at its base asserts that there is a fundamental limit to what we can perceive and understand about the smallest scales of nature. Just as Heisenberg propounded that the more one may know of a given point position, the less one knew about its momentum, the sculpture too seemed to make the viewer question his or her own spatial and temporal presence in the gallery. The work seemed to be an apt conclusion to our visit as it questioned the thresholds of perception, memory, and the temporal boundaries of the object and the viewer, particularly in relation to digital media, hinting at an artistic rhetoric beyond the object.

Images: Museum of The Moving Image, Jim Campbell's online portfolio and Reddit.

Cabelle Ahn and Linden Hill are M.A. students at the Bard Graduate Center.