Horror movies, particularly when viewed in a group setting, provide a shared experience that, when the lights come back on, reminds viewers that despite whatever insanity they just witnessed and endured, they survived. Sociologist and author, Margee Kerr explains,
[Horror movies] intensify the emotional experience . . . you hear your friends laughing, or even just strangers laughing, or screaming, and you start doing the same, and it really does bond people, and create a sense of solidarity. A sense that you’re all in this together . . . [Émile] Durkheim called it the collective effervescence. You feel that shared, emotional kind of bonding.⁴
Films have even capitalized on the intensity of the viewing experience, such as with the marketing for Wes Craven’s 1972 debut, The Last House on the Left. Seen on posters and trailers, the reassuring phrase, “It’s only a movie…” was proposed as a mantra for movie-goers to repeat to themselves during viewings in an effort to “avoid fainting.”⁵ Horror as a genre has a long history of testing the emotional limits of viewers. For example, Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol (Grand Guignol), was a theatre in Paris that opened in 1897 that specialized in short, realistic horror plays that were often adapted from real-life crimes.⁶ These plays were known for their naturalistic depictions of gore, such as in the play, The Final Kiss, in which “a man is convalescing after having been horribly burned when his jealous paramour throws acid in his face.”⁷ Grand Guignol attendees would be treated to multiple short plays in a single evening; these plays would often have a horror play followed by a comedy play in order to “. . . release . . . tensions inspired by fear and insanity . . . to create a kind of hot and cold effect.”⁸ It’s clear that horror media has long been aware of the emotional toll the viewing experience can have on viewers. Kerr’s explanation of horror film viewing, the marketing of The Last House on the Left, and even the plays put on by the Grand Guignol are based on engaging with horror in a theatre surrounded by many other people. But what happens when a piece of horror media is presented to viewers in alternative spaces, such as a gallery setting?
The experience of visiting a gallery versus that of attending a film in a theatre may share similarities, but each has been constructed with quite different intentions. Perhaps the most obvious difference is the choice of wall colour in these spaces; the notorious white cube is still the standard for most gallery settings, whereas, it’s advantageous for theatres to use deep greys to allow for the projection’s light to pop. This difference can be boiled down to the primary goals of these differing spaces. A gallery is primarily a space that has to constantly iterate its lighting setup depending on what is being exhibited; for example, a Matisse painting is going to benefit from a brighter space, in which the colours can radiate. Conversely, a movie theatre is only concerned with presenting projected images that, due to being constructed by light, are best displayed in a darkened space that allows for the light to be reflected back at viewers. Aside from the oppositional room colours, the manner in which attendees are expected to act in these spaces couldn’t be more different. Art critic Thomas McEvilley explains that in white cube galleries, “. . . we give up our humanness and become the cardboard Spectator with the disembodied Eye. . . . In classical modernist galleries, as in churches, one does not speak in a normal voice; one does not laugh, eat, drink, lie down, or sleep; one does not get ill, go mad, sing, dance, or make love.”⁹ Essentially, when we enter the gallery, we’re expected to take on a passive role that doesn’t disrupt the space, with McEvilley even stating that “we accept a reduced level of life and self” in the gallery.¹⁰ The gallery thus has an expectation for viewers to be passive specters that float through the space, ensuring not to disturb the art that the viewers happen upon during their visit. Alternatively, the movie theatre is a darkened room that elicits emotion and action from attendees. Haidee Wasson, a professor of film and media in the School of Cinema, Concordia University writes, “. . . movies don’t just appear, they are presented. Moreover, they are made visible by a particular kind of display logic, one often predicated on sizable, seated, and repeat audiences that rent, among other things, a line of sight to the screen.”¹¹ So, the viewing experience in a movie theatre, much like the colours of the wall, are in direct opposition to the viewing experience in a gallery. Like Wasson says, the movie theatre experience is built upon the viewer “. . . [renting] . . . a line of sight to the screen,”¹² which insinuates that viewers enter the movie theatre space with an expectation of what sort of viewing experience will be provided, whereas, attending a gallery, there is an expectation of transience from attendees, with no promise of a specific viewing experience.
In a gallery setting, there are fewer people in the space viewing media-based work than would be found in a movie theatre. I believe that, while the shared experience that Kerr describes can be had with other gallery-goers, the experience is often shifted away from how the viewer responds to others in the space, and becomes more about the relationship between the artist and viewer. This shift in experience is for a number of reasons, such as the aforementioned differences between white cube galleries and movie theatres, but additionally, the intent of media works in a gallery versus that of films in a movie theatre are often in opposition to each other. For example, Japanese artist, Ryoji Ikeda’s 2011 immersive installation, The Transfinite, is a large-scale (54’ x 40’ projection wall, 54’ x 81’ projection floor) strobing black and white audiovisual projection that is constructed through binary code and mathematics. The work doesn’t operate on a schedule like a film in a theatre does, but is instead played on a loop, allowing viewers to interact with the installation for as long as they choose, and when they choose. Due to gallery-goers engaging with media works in countless different ways—standing versus sitting, watching for five minutes versus twenty minutes, viewing with friends versus viewing alone, and so on—a division is formed between viewers in the same space that disrupts the possibility for the shared experience Kerr spoke about in relation to movie theatres. Thus, in a gallery setting, the collective experience isn’t between the attendees, but rather between the viewer and the artist.
In the initial development of Meditation on a Potential Death, I was eager to make a video work that illustrated the emotional experience I had while enduring the events surrounding my dad’s suicide attempt. These events were overwhelming, scary, and even comical at times. Rather than simply illustrating the events, I chose to approach them more lyrically. My emotions surrounding the events with my dad dictated the construction of Meditation on a Potential Death, thus providing viewers with an invitation to experience the frenzied state I found myself in throughout its creation. By enduring the viewing, even for a fraction of the total runtime, I believe that a bond is formed between myself and the viewer that says: we just went through some crazy shit together, but we survived it. So, while Kerr posits that, “[in the movie theatre,] you hear . . . strangers laughing, or screaming, and you start doing the same,” I would suggest that Meditation on a Potential Death thus engages the viewer as the stranger from Kerr’s argument. The viewer laughs and screams in response to the video laughing and screaming about the horror of a paternal suicide; in turn, this means the viewer and myself are responding to each other laughing and screaming at such horror.