Britni Bicknaver has had a very busy year. The Cincinnati native has exhibited new works in group shows at the Weston Art Gallery (Cincinnati, OH) and The Carnegie (Covington, KY) through the spring and summer of 2019, before opening her solo show Cinema of Memory at Reverb Art + Design (Cincinnati, OH) on August 7. This latest project traffics in accessibility of imagery as much as atmospheric mood building, as Bicknaver teases out how familiarity prompts and produces emotionally charged connections and recollections.
Cinema of Memory presents six works from an ongoing series of the same name that pair printed photographic images with original scores and sound design, housed within custom-made light-boxes. Mounted on dark blue walls in Reverb’s exhibition space, these glowing 15” x 19” x 15” containers draw viewers in with the allure of light, and keep them transfixed through the alchemy of visual and sonic gestalt Bicknaver imbues within each frame. Formally, the work is very clean, possessing an almost minimalist aesthetic. The soft light that emanates from the frames washes over the viewer’s face as they engage the work, not unlike the way phone, television, and theater screens shine off skin in darkened spaces. Experiencing the work takes on a truly intimate tone as the viewer dons headphones connected to each light-box, sealing the spectator into a 1:1:1 ratio of image, sound, and subject in Bicknaver’s personal miniature cinemas.
The accessibility of the work begins with the common nature of the photographs Bicknaver presents within the illuminated frames. Culled from an archive of over 2,000 images spanning 150 years of familial and photographic history, the prints on display are decidedly unspectacular. And that’s the point. These image-objects represent stand-ins for vernacular photographs that many of us keep in aging shoeboxes or dusty manila envelopes tucked into the back of a closet or stored under a bedframe. They are simple snapshots, captured in point-and-shoot technology under mixed lighting with imperfect framing. Some are stained, faded, or otherwise marred by time and handling, while others appear in near pristine condition. This tactile recognition of a photograph as an image and an object, from a time before the digital push turned film negatives into files with extensions like .jpg, .tif, and .raw, is a point that may divide audiences along lines of “digital immigrants” versus “digital natives.” But where the former gains access through a lens of nostalgia, the latter may achieve it through a lens of novelty.
The subtitles of each piece reflect the ordinariness of the images: Lake, Volleyball, Beach, Night Window, Omelet Bar, and Grass (all 2019). And while the scenes captured on film may not exactly be everyday occurrences, they are exactly the types of images one would expect to find in a family’s collection of photographs: stills from vacations, day trips, special occasions, and mundane moments that meant something to someone at some point. Two adult figures prep a motorboat for an excursion on a lake while a child floats behind the watercraft in a life vest. Five young women in yellow uniforms and feathered hair celebrate in a high school gymnasium. An adult and a child stand silhouetted on a beach at sunset, while a second child skips along the sand behind them. An awning foregrounds the illuminated window of someone’s home. Diners line up for buffet service. Two blurry bodies lie out in the verdant green of a well-manicured lawn.
What we find in these photos are pieces of our own histories, experiences, and families, pieces of ourselves. Bicknaver has purposefully selected pictures that obscure the identity of their subjects, whether through distance, lighting, or image quality. This distinction allows viewers the ability to place themselves within each scene, conjuring personal recollections of similar experiences churned up in response to familiar yet foreign visual stimuli. Here, we allow ourselves to slip into the mind-space of remembrance, piecing together memories through false referents.
It is with an acknowledgment of how memories are often subjectively edited to play back in our mind’s eye as cinematic experiences that Bicknaver works towards building an even stronger atmospheric link between the pieces in Cinema of Memory, and where the audience’s second point of access emerges. By pairing image and sound together, the artist has tapped into the language of film and television, modes of communication and expression every American is at least passively aware of, if not down right shaped by. In an era of online streaming platforms that curate content and cajole subscribers to explore related titles, our collective understanding of cinematic discourse may be at an all time high. With the ability to binge-watch series, mini-series, sequels, trilogies, and connected cinematic universes comes a heightened awareness of how tone carries and shifts through filmic runtimes. Increasingly, we describe what we’re watching in terms of how it feels.
Even though the scores and soundscapes Bicknaver has created for Cinema of Memory are contrived, they feel authentic, leading the viewer to inhabit the picture-world presented in front of them in a more dynamic way. By layering in diegetic sounds, Bicknaver has prompted the viewer to mentally animate the static images she has selected. Some of the tracks include stereo panning, allowing a sense of depth and movement to develop in antithesis of a photograph’s assumed natural state, one of distilling time and space into a singular moment situated in a specific locale. The thoughtful attention Bicknaver has afforded these works in approaching a two-dimensional medium with a four-dimensional treatment creates an engaged viewing experience that further accentuates our own understanding of memory. By taking a single moment as depicted in a photograph and drawing it out into an expanded awareness of before, during, and after capture, we are given a glimpse into both memory and movie making practices.
This is one of the ways in which Cinema of Memory succeeds in building atmosphere and eliciting emotional response. The vagueness of the scenes we are presented with creates a sense of displacement, in an almost otherworldly way. The overwhelming ordinariness of these images make it feel as though they could have been captured anywhere, which consequently also means they feel like they may have been captured nowhere. Stripped of signs and markers that would allow us to definitively identify the time and place each picture captures, we are left to fill in the blanks of the story. This in turn colors our perception of the series, consigning the viewer to a state of cinematic dream sequences and voyeuristic attachment.
In addition to the nuanced and attuned diegetic sounds Bicknaver has attached to each image are lush scores the artist composed to further compound a sense of atmosphere and mood in Cinema of Memory. The soft, symphonic soundtracks cast each work into the hazy spaces of cinematic flashback scenes and near-period pieces. The soundtracks play out in loops of less than one minute, mimicking the way editors use scores in major motion pictures. Some of the tracks bring a sense of bouncy energy to their images, while others usher in a more solemn tone. The approach here is one of deliberate and careful editing, using the scores to heighten tension between what we see in front of us and what we imagine has actually taken place, while simultaneously manufacturing a mood to house the cognitive dissonance within.
As a viewer, we are caught between the comfortable, ethereal spaces Bicknaver has created by joining visual and sonic registers into vivid albeit artificial story worlds, and the slightly unsettling space of conjuring our own nostalgic connections to lived experiences gone by, all while attempting to parse out the story Bicknaver has set before us. Like any strong film that leaves itself open to interpretation, or consciously leaves action unresolved, Cinema of Memory is an exhibition that lingers in the viewer’s mind, affecting mood and cognitive recall long after one has exited the exhibition space. When we talk about nostalgia, we tend to put emphasis on affectionate associations with the past, typically downplaying the notions of longing and wistfulness inherent within the condition. Bicknaver has ensured that we feel both when experiencing her latest work, manufacturing an overarching mood that is simultaneously celebratory and melancholic. The implied simplicity of the pieces in Cinema of Memory belies the complex mental and emotional responses the show elicits, making the viewing experience that much more impactful. Ultimately, Bicknaver has presented us with a series of images and sounds that underscore life as lived through minor moments, the weight of which may only be fully appreciated in retrospect.
Cinema of Memory remains on view through October 2019 at Reverb Art + Design.
130 W. Court St., Cincinnati, OH 45202. Viewing hours: 10:00 am – 4:00 pm M-F or by appointment.
Text and images by C. M. Turner