Phenomenology has, as it’s central hypothesis, an argument for the principal role that perception plays in understanding the world, as well as engaging with it. Building from the previous philosophies of Emmanuel Kant, who defined a phenomenon as a thing as it appears to and is interpreted by human sensibility and understanding, phenomenology is the study of how things appear to us, how we construct and interpret our perceptions within the structures of consciousness from a first-person point of view. Relating to topics such as perception, intentionality, self-consciousness, consciousness of others and awareness of the body, phenomenology takes our innate interaction with phenomena and attempts to obtain from it the crucial elements of experiences and the essence of the forming of these experiences. In order to form a fixed understanding amongst the many interpretations of Phenomenology, this study will specifically use the theories of Maurice Merleau-Ponty that are expressed in his Phenomenology of Perception (2002 [1945]). The pioneering text placed its central emphasis on the body as the primary site of knowing the world and how the body and that which it perceives cannot be separated. As he makes abundantly clear “the body is our general medium for having a world” (Merleau-Ponty, 2002 [1945], p. 146), which forms a counteractive theory to long standing dualistic theories that hold the philosophical belief that the consciousness forms in the mind and is the source of our understanding and perceiving, making you, your mind, and your body only a casing. Merleau–Ponty’s focus also sits on how the body interacts with it’s surrounding world and how in turn the way the body interacts with the world is what forms our perception of it; “We must not, therefore, wonder whether we really perceive a world, we must instead say: the world is what we perceive.” (Merleau-Ponty, 2002 [1945], p. xvi). The body cannot be viewed merely as an object, nor just as a material in the world. What we perceive as our world is the world that is present to us in our minds, which is an image affected through our interaction with the world via our body.

In his analytical study of Phenomenology of Perception A. D. Smith defines the principal features of Merleau-Ponty’s theories saying that its the “emphasis on the autonomous unity of the body, the way this is explicated, and the centrality that is given to it” (Smith, 2007, p. 12) that gives Merleau-Ponty’s theories their unique quality. It is because of the innate bond that our body has with the world that allows it to perceive its surroundings: “We are vulnerable to the world, and affected by it, because our bodies are of a piece with the world. But the body is also what fleshes out a world for us, it is the living interpreter of the world.” (Smith, 2007, p. 4). Its through the bodies themselves, their experiences and link to the surrounding space that allows us to perceive them, and its through forming this relationship that we become closely connected with the world’s phenomena. As Sasha Engelmann argues, it is when we are physically interacting with the objects around us that we become an integrally involved part. Though writing in terms of its relation to Olafur Eliasson’s non-video installation works, Engelmann considers Merleau-Ponty’s theories and explores the way the body senses its environment when in a space.

In playing the part of the viewer as sensory receptor, reacting to stimuli and projecting back onto the work, we become so much a part of the work itself that our perceptions of other, unrelated objects may change as well. As Merleau-Ponty remarks, our perceptions expand onto the “complete world,” demonstrating a consequence of the artistic experience: we are now altered perceivers and seers. (Engelmann, 2008).

In regarding Merleau-Ponty’s philosophes with that of installation art, Engelmann states that the role that the viewer plays reflects back on the work and the viewer and work become connected. This alters our perception of the objects in the space and the space we are in changes us, it takes us in and has the ability to alter the way we in turn perceive the space. The artist, as creator, ultimately controls the space and what a viewer can interpret.

It’s important that before this progresses any further clarification of certain terms is reached.  Firstly, to clarify definitions and to understand the use of the terms: viewer, visitor, spectator, participator, the cinema and the gallery. And secondly, to place these thoughts amongst surrounding theories and writings in order to understand it’s place in the field and to gauge similar theories of the cinema and the gallery.

The viewer, defined as “one who surveys with eyes or mind, one who watches television” (Collins Dictionary, 1995, p.809) marks the viewer as someone who is physically inactive, relying on their eyes to receive and their mind to interpret. A visitor falls in to a similar category; the viewer and the visitor both experience a solid state, what is being viewed or visited remains in its continuing state between individuals, the viewer/visitor experiences the same object as the viewer/visitor before and after. How it is received though is the aspect that changes between each individual viewer and visitor and as defined by the theories of phenomenology it is down to their physicality and their own perception through their bodies that creates this change in experience. There are key differences however. To ‘visit’ is defined as “to go to see or spend time at (a place) with a certain intent” (Collins Dictionary, 1995, p.811), in what seems like obvious terms the visitor goes to visit a real, solid object that exists with or without the presence of the viewer. A ‘spectator’ also differs from a viewer; defined as “one who looks on” and “an observer of an event” (Collins Dictionary, 1995, p. 703) this labels the spectator as one who watches something unfold in front of them as an event takes place and developing. Spectators observing the same event can have very similar, but infinitely variable experiences. The role of the ‘participator’ takes another step forward; they are only one of the three that can actually effect the object that they are experiencing; they create the event for themselves through directly affecting what is happening to them and what they are perceiving. Defined as “to take part in something” (Collins Dictionary, 1995, p.535); the participator has an experience that directly responds to the individual participators decisions. This participation can of course be manipulated, giving the participator an environment purposefully designed to evoke a certain physical experience. This will be discussed later with regards to the work of Pipilotti Rist and Bruce Nauman. With all these roles, there are situations where definitions can overlap and merge, a person fulfilling two simultaneously or changing from one to another, especially as spectator and participator. With an interactive art piece for example one could be a participator involved with the interactive elements but this could involve watching another participator interact, thus making them a spectator too.

The Cinema

Placing theories of phenomenology into the context of the cinema space first requires a full understanding of what cinema space means. The cinema itself has a clear identity that is built up of many factors important to the contemporary cinema experience. It’s key to realise the entirety of the cinema experience – how it’s built up and the importance of each of its elements. The first is the experience of going to the cinema: ticket buying, confectionary buying and queuing. However, these factors are common amongst many visiting attractions. Below lists the elements of the cinema that are unique to the watching space that formed by the cinema’s dispositif:

Walking down the corrider that open up to the movie thearter
The seats – the rows, the structure
Finding your seat
The light aisle
Settling down as the spectale of the film starts
The screen at the front
The surrounding darkness
The magic of the projection
The viewer’s imagination
The other audience members
The film ending
Lights go up
The audience leaves

Many of these elements are, of course, remnants left from the theatre environment upon which the cinema was originally based. Cinema though, did not need the additional space that theatre did, with the only requirements for a cinema being that “they must be dark enough to allow for the projection of light [and] they must have room to accommodate a collective number of immobile (preferably seated) viewers” (Friedberg, 2006, p. 164). Though at first necessities for the apparatus, elements like the darkness have created additional side effects that have become important to the identity and effectiveness of submersing the viewer further into the cinema screen. Anne Friedberg’s comprehensive study of the screen, The Virtual Window, focuses on the origins of the screen in the theatre space and the architectural theory surrounding the cinema screen. With respect to the role of spectatorship and the spectator’s ‘point of view’ in space she comments:

…once projection devices were deployed to cast moving images onto framed flat surfaces, onto screens hung in darkened (windowless) halls, storefronts, or vaudeville theatres, the architectural paradigm for cinema spectatorship implied an increasingly fixed bodily position for the viewer to allow for new habits of engagement with the virtual image. (Friedberg, 2006, p. 164).

The space that cinemas created became the archetype for the way that the audiences have continued to watch the moving image. The fixed bodily position allowed the viewer’s self awareness to drop; it allowed to them focus for longer periods of time and more convincingly believe in the presented illusion.

The cinema is a set formula, you can not put up a screen place chairs in front of it and call it a cinema, though the same subject can be watched the viewing experience of watching a film anywhere is not cinema. The most definable of the cinema experience is the relationship between screen and viewer and the spectacle the viewer is privy to on screen. The film watching experience itself is created in a space that aims to produce a perfect surrounding for the viewer, to heighten their concentration levels and to remove them from their own place and body. Escaping from their surrounding becomes an important aspect of the cinema, for being aware of the mechanism that creates, for example, the image with its projection beam and projectionist would only break down the illusion that the image on screen presents. In her essay ‘Video Installation Art: The Body, The Image, and The Space in Between’ Margaret Morse when comparing the proscenium arts of the theatre and cinema to the gallery based art installations coins the term of the elsewhere and the elsewhen:

The screen of film divides the here and now of the spectator from the elsewhere and elsewhen beyond with varying degrees of absoluteness. […] The visitor to an installation, on the other hand, is surrounded by a spatial here and now, enclosed within a construction that is ground in actual (not illusionistic) space. (Morse, 1990, p. 156).

The screen of the cinema acts as physical separation between the elsewhere and the elsewhen of the illusionistic space that is being projected and the real here and now that the viewer is anchored in and can not escape. Expressing that an installation being a physical here and now that embraces it’s construction is real and thus more immersive than the illusionistic construction on a cinema screen that by its own definition is always divided from the viewer. Morse argues that with the bodily experience of seeing the object within a real space too, the spectator has a wholly different experience from sitting in a proscenium environment. Interactive installation artist Luc Courchesne continues down this thread and on the back of expressing that cinema can never be immersive without a deep transformation, thus making it something else entirely, he goes on to state the importance of creating an immersive environment – “Immersive imaging frees the viewer’s body and multiplies the possible points of view; choosing what to look at amounts to picking a subject and making something of it. Any immersive medium is thus by nature interactive and transforms spectator into visitors” (Courchesne, 2002, p. 226). Changes the role of the person in the space, it is interactive; they are a visitor in the space in these cases because the work continues once they have left and was happening before they arrived; they are encountering the work at one point in time and so experiencing it on a personal basis – at that moment – which would differ from the way someone viewing the next day or tens minutes after they’ve left would. The cinema environment is obviously completely different, as the film begins once the viewer is seated and ends before they stand and leave. It is a controlled time frame that revolves around the presence of the audience itself. In installation or the gallery context, the pieces of work continue to play where they are being watched/experienced/visited or not.

The Gallery

The concept of the gallery has changed from that of its origin. At its birth, the gallery was a space of purity and blankness, but today the issues holding the gallery back spawn from its institutional identity as a white cube. The space is a constricted one, placing parameters on artists, causing work to be viewed in a specific way – the viewer as onlooker to the object.

The gallery has at its base the same core purpose as the cinema: to create a space that provides the viewer a lack of distractions and the ability to fully focus and take in a specific piece of art. Similar too is the unity of each gallery experience in logistical terms – consisting of the ticket buying and a build up to a spectacle as the viewer enters the sacred gallery space and becomes part of a viewing audience. A key difference though, for the body is that its place in the viewing space of the gallery is not restricted to a static position as in the cinema. The viewer is able to move around and importantly move on from a work at their own pace. They are the decision-maker; he/she can decide their distance, positioning and length of time spent being with the work, causing the experience to become unique for each visitor. Whilst concerned largely with the development of the gallery space in terms of mid-20th century artists, before the introduction of video installation, Brian O’Doherty set of essays ‘Inside the White Cube’ touches upon the act of viewing installation in terms of its effect on the viewer exploring the psychological implications of viewing work:

The space [of a gallery] offers the thought that while eyes and minds are welcome, space occupying bodies are not – or are tolerated only as kinaesthetic mannequins for further study. This Cartesian paradox is reinforced by one of the icons of our visual culture: the installation shot, sans figures. Here at last, the spectator, oneself, is eliminated (O’Doherty, 1999, p. 115).

O’Doherty states that the gallery doesn’t welcome the body, as it is a place primarily for the works of art rather than the viewers of the work. The spatial aspects of installation aren’t about the body but about the space around it; galleries, contrary to other arguments, do not create spaces that embrace the bodily experience. By explaining this as a paradoxical description, it is clear that the gallery can be used with the viewer’s bodily perception as key to the work, or simply as a by-product of their physical presence. This dissertation is fundamentally concerned with this opposition, where the premise of the gallery as a place to ‘view’, not to ‘be’, is contestable.

On this topic artist and theorist Malcolm Le Grice talks about how extending the cinematic presentation though multi-screen forms gives the spectator a choice of what they want to watch. The result of this choice, being a physical movement in one way or another, the viewer is thus involved in the space of the work. This interaction is what is fundamental to the experience.

….reconfiguring the cinema space simultaneously breaks the singularity of the experience – but more particularly breaks any assumption that there is a singular (authorised) interpretation based on matching spectator experience to artistic intention. […] Stressing the spatial configuration of a work means the spectator is made aware of occupying the space of the presentation. (Le Grice, 2011, p. 169)

For Le Grice viewing moving image in the context of an installation breaks down the assumptions that are inherent in a cinema auditorium; specifically that it is a unitary experience, or that the image and reception have a clear or definable correlation, which automatically derives from that spatial organisation. Assertions like these would undermine a whole area of assumptions regarding film studies scholarship, auteur theory being a case in point. Le Grice’s assertion here is that conceptual elements he attempts to reflect could be understood as the ultimate breaking of the fourth wall, or physical rendering of Brechtian alienation. What is more, he is underlining the importance that an awareness of a personal physicality by the viewer aids their understanding and the interactivity of the work itself. Le Grice’s own artistic work, and conceptual thinking, points to the often-invisible phenomenological essentialism that structure all interactive experience.

Both the gallery and the cinema are trying to create spaces that allow the viewer to focus entirely on the piece of work provided in front of them. Thus, if we are claiming that the cinema has issues with its physically constricting space then we must also accept that the gallery has these same issues: people move around the gallery space in the same way, often led through the spaces in a certain order, and staying physically separate from what is on show. Nicky Hamlyn’s ‘Film Art Phenomena’ talks pointedly about artist’s films in the gallery, and more specifically in the chapter ‘Installation and its Audience’ it discusses the effect of the installation space on the viewer. Hamlyn brings in the ideas of the sculptural concerns of the installation:

…sculpture is not only spatial and actual – a real object in the real world- but it is also more strongly temporal than painting, because the experience of having to move around a sculpture reminds the spectator, through the bodily effort required to take in the object, that time is passing, that the experience is temporal. (Hamlyn, 2003, p. 146).

Hamlyn stresses that it is the being in a physical space and being aware of having to physically move to appreciate the installation that creates the spectator experience of the installation. Though here referring directly to sculpture, this is relevant to the sculptural qualities that video installation has within a space. With this in mind, then, it would be fair to say that with a sculpturally physical presentation of video installation, a more interactively charged space can be created, one that allows interplay between visitor and work. The time taken with the work and the narrative nature of the movement of the body links their presence to the viewed work. The experience is not static, and is greatly different from that of the cinema.

A key text is that of Kate Mondloch’s Screens: Viewing Media Installation Art in which the underlying argument voices the need to recognize the importance of screens and environments of screen-based viewing in both contemporary art and our everyday. The principal suggestion of Screens is “that present day viewers are quite literally, screen subjects” (Mondloch, 2010, p. xxi) and that “how ones sees is just as important as what one sees” (Mondloch, 2010, p. xiii), and setting this as her foundation Mondloch delves into how certain artist and their work re-establishes the forgotten connection between the body and the screen.
By foregrounding an active relationship between the spectator, media objects, exhibition space, and screen spaces, these media art installations generate a self-conscious and troubled spectatorship explicitly contingent upon the articulated tension between actual and virtual times and space. We are simultaneously both here and there, both now and then.” (Mondloch, 2010, pp. 75-76)

Mondloch discusses the connection between the virtual and the real, presented through the screen. The mediated aspect of video installation adds something new to the space, then, in addition to its sculptural qualities, pointing to the often-invisible phenomenological essentialism that structures all interactive experience.



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Courchesne, L. (2002). Construction of Experience: Turning Spectators into Visitors. In M. Rieser, & A. Zapp (Eds.), New Screen Media: Cinema/Art/Narrative (pp. 256-267). London: British Film Institute.
Engelmann, S. (2008). Breaking the Frame: Olafur Eliasson’s Art, Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology, and the Rhetoric of Eco-Activism. Retrieved January 3, 2013 from Art & Education: http://www.artandeducation.net/paper/breaking-the-frame-olafur-eliasson’s-art-merleau-ponty’s-phenomenology-and-the-rhetoric-of-eco-activism/
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Morse, M. (1990). Video Installation Art: The Body, The Image, and The Space-in-Between. In D. Hall, & S. Fifer (Eds.), Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art (pp. 153-167). Metuchen, N.J.: Aperture in association with the Bay Area Video Coalition.
O’Doherty, B. (1999). Inside The White Cube: The Ideology of The Gallery Space (Expended ed.). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Smith, A. D. (2007). The Flesh of Perception: Merleau-Ponty and Husserl. In T. Baldwin (Ed.), Reading Merleau-Ponty: On Phenomenology of Perception (pp. 1-22). London: Routledge.


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