Aesthetic Experiences of Presence : Case Studies in Film Exhibition, 1896-1898

Abstract: This study investigates viewing experiences that came with the introduction of cinema. Merging (film) history with aesthetic theory, this dissertation entails historically informed theoretical reconstructions of viewing experiences between 1896 and 1898. During this novelty period, projected moving pictures evoked a wide array of reactions: on the one hand, early cinema was an extraordinary and astonishing attraction while, on the other hand, it was deeply rooted in daily life and everyday perception. To contemporary audiences, early moving pictures presented an unevenness hovering between amazement and contemplation. This study argues that the cinematograph, the vitascope, and other animated-picture attractions were popular at this early stage because they immediately appealed to the senses. These sensations are subsequently discussed as effects of presence. Early moving-picture exhibitions, moreover, can be seen as performances involving spectators in a play with presence vis-à-vis absence. While moving-picture attractions had an immediate impact on the viewer’s body as situated in the “here and now” of the auditorium, the pictures presented places and objects that were irrevocably inaccessible and absent. Exploring different viewing situations in two different contexts, the current study therefore proposes the aesthetic experience of presence as a framework to understand these various late 19th-century viewing experiences.The three chapters of this dissertation are organized separately around the concepts of intermediality, movement, and space. Chapter 1 proposes that, in the context of fairgrounds in the Netherlands, early cinema’s “intermedial enmeshing” is a probable cause for the aesthetic experience of presence. This chapter employs the concept of intermediality to outline how the kinematograph attraction caused both a semantically rich as well as a sensuously multivalent experience. It then presents a detailed study of the activities and attractions of the showman Henri Grünkorn before he exhibited “Electric Cinematograph.” Chapter 1 also investigates the various layers of discourse involved in Aladin ou la lampe merveilleuse (1897), a series of scenes exhibited by Grünkorn that was popular with local audiences at the time.Chapter 2 focuses on the experience of movement. Through a close study of the introduction of moving images in the context of Chicago in 1896 and 1897, it proposes that moving pictures presented a radically familiar form of motion. It was familiar in the sense that it brought together a number of constellations of motion and energy fundamental to modernity. Situating moving images in the rhythms of the city allows us to conceptualize the spectator as physically engaged with the motion of the kinematograph. Chapter 3 studies the paradox of proximity and distance and discusses moving-picture attractions as they were introduced in vaudeville and popular theater in Chicago. It describes the different constellations between screen and live performance from a spatial perspective while focusing on the representation of bodies. In many ways, the paradox of nearness and distance allowed for a spatially oriented play with presences. The study concludes with a discussion on the potential and challenges of including presence effects in film-historical research on viewing experiences in early cinema and beyond.