THE MULTIPLEX does not. It is not. If a multiplex really multiplexed—the way for example a video editor or a telecoms engineer would understand that term—something different would happen after your ticket was torn. This receiving station for commercial films would combine all of the signals it received into a single feed, the way a telephone wire carries many calls at once. Imagine a cinema which really multiplexed, in that sense: a single screen on which Gone Girl, The Equalizer, Pride, The Nutjob 2, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Finding Felaare playing simultaneously, superimposed in space. In reality when we go to the ‘multiplex,’ we expect to experience our signals sorted and discrete: rom-com in screen 1, revenge thriller screen 2, Full Monty retread screen 3… The multiplex is in fact, in technical terms, demultiplexing: it sifts and sorts signals and audience alike. The screens are as isolated and indifferent to one another as the cinema patrons are, sitting in the dark. As Jean-Luc Godard put it: “In a cinema people are many (together) to be alone in front of the screen”. But what would it mean if, in fact, the screens were to be in conversation with one another? What if the streams were crossed? The whole cinema complex suddenly the site, not of a series of mutually exclusive consumer choices but a singular experience in which the screens spoke to one another?
MAJOR GENERAL GEORGE OWEN SQUIER was interested in what we would make in the future. He thought we would make things that were unimaginable to him, but which drew on his invention: “That time will surely come when the methods of electrcal inter-communication will have been so developed and multiplied that the people of the different countries of the world may become neighbours.” He was writing in 1911, half a century before McLuhan prophesied the “global village”. Squier had invented the form of carrier-current transmission which allowed multiplex telephony, or multiplexing. He declared in his patents that, “The unrestricted use of this method is free to all people in the United States.” In 1924, however, he sued the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T), who were commercially exploiting his invention to build their telephone network, but lost on the basis that he had voluntarily given up his rights. He later invented a technique for delivering music over electric wires, as an alternative to unreliable early radio, and became patron of piped music in department stores, which he trademarked as ‘Muzak’.
THE SUFFIX ‘-plex’ means ‘-fold’, as in ‘fourfold’ or ‘tenfold’. It is a multiplier, but derives originally from the division into parts by folding. The simple enumeration of parts seems innocent enough, but folding as a process is more deceptive and more dangerous. Folds double-back, they turn things in on themselves, and they create topologies which quickly exceed our capacity to comprehend them, like some fantastic Ernst Haeckel drawing of an anemone. The fold is also, metaphorically, a figure of self-reflexivity. Think of a ‘making-of’ documentary: is it a separate entity, hovering over the film whose making it depicts—or is it better understood as a fold, a crease in the continuum of that other film, a moment in which the production process doubles back and confronts itself? When a film is boring, or too tense, I fold my ticket compulsively. My pockets are full of bullet-like stubs.
BRITAIN RECEIVED the multiplex cinema late. It took Milton Keynes to make it possible, and it was 1985, around the bottom of the trough of British cinema receipts. The cinema was called The Point and it was a glass ziggurat which contained 10 screens. In the U.S., the multiplex had existed since the mid-60s and had by this point already given way to ‘megaplexes’: out of town behemoths with fifteen or more screens. The Point waxed and waned, briefly becoming part of Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou’s empire as an experimental ‘easy Cinema’ in the early noughties, before finally closing and recently being scheduled for demolition. Why, I always wonder, do people not stay in the multiplex? Why not see a double-bill, or even a triple-bill, for the price of your ticket? Why don’t we sit through a day’s worth, like cinemagoers in the 40s waiting for the whole programme to repeat? Staff rarely stray beyond the main entrance these days, no one greets you at the screen. All it takes is a careful consultation of the timetables, so you don’t have to spend too long lurking in the corridors. I remember sneaking from the end credits of The Passion of the Christ into Dawn of the Dead in the screen next door at the Vue in Islington, which is still my favourite multiplex, for a custom-made resurrection double-bill. But in reality, I never do that any more either. Did the pictures get small, or did I?
IN THE 1970s, the artist Annabel Nicolson made several performance works in the cinema space of the London Filmmakers Coop. One was called Doorway (1974): “I asked someone to stand in the space before the audience arrived, with this text which actually was about the night sky and when the first person arrived, as the door opened it created a shaft of light in the cinema—the cinema was in fact just an empty hall—so the door opened and there was a shaft of light and he managed to read a few words. This went on with people arriving and of course being confused because they’d look in and see somebody reading, and they’d think they’d come to the wrong place and they’d go away again and come in again. By this time the ones who were inside, who’d been through this experience, could see what was happening and could anticipate, so it was quite humorous. It worked particularly well there because we were on the third floor and there was this old stone staircase which you had to climb up, and you could hear people’s footsteps so there was a sense of anticipation and suspense as you herd someone stop just outside the door… There wasn’t any film—it was to do with light and light creating a space for information, without the light there’s no information.” (There were no glowing ‘EXIT’ signs at the Coop.) Nicolson made a related work called Matches a year later, in which two volunteers read from copies of the same text alternatively by match light: “Positioned some distance apart, each with a box of matches, they are asked to read alternately. Each reads from the point they left left off in their previous turn for as long as their flame lasts.” A kind of conversation of echos, out of sync. Or maybe it was really a choreography for the hands—or a living sculpture consisting of burnt fingers?
WE HAD A FRIEND who would always talk in the cinema. It wasn’t his fault, he was simply allergic to the churchlike forward-facing silence. Generally, I was embarrassed and tried to reply just enough to be polite without annoying the other patrons. But periodically, we would still go to the cinema with him and be mortified. Conversations depend a great deal on context, but also on the social ties connecting the speakers. They need to share a language, to start with (or perhaps that is already too prescriptive?). Sociologists like to count the ties that connect people and to parse their relationships accordingly: my relationship to the person at the cinema ticket counter would be considered ‘uniplex’—one dimensional, customer to employee. Conversations are different when you are forced to have them, or paid to have them, like in a focus group or on a sex chat line. In fact, I used to know a lot of people that worked in cinemas and they would often let me in for free. That was because our relationships were, sociologically-speaking, ‘multiplex’, both professional and personal—those different aspects were folded in somehow. (None of my friends are sociologists.) I do not know so many people working in cinemas any more, probably partly because I am older but partly because there are less people working there. You buy your tickets from the person selling ice cream. Something else I have started to realise (being older): you also have conversations with people who are no longer there.
THIS POSTER is the foyer.
“I am always writing about the need to calibrate this catagory ‘cinema’—a process of differentiation that would begin by separating off—or pointing to—industrial cinema and everything that it has been/is responsible for (the auditorium as we receive it, multiplexes, mass distribution circuits, hierarchical organisation of labour from producution to exhibition) as just one form of cinema rather than the form…
“The auditorium need not be understood as the indivisible sum of the industry and the economy of the cinema, with which it has become synonymous. There are splashes in muddy waters… It could, for example, be considered a ruined museum. Such a thought might precipitate others as a plethora of hybrids, and this proliferation might make a differentiation out of such excess. The copy made into theatre. Context and/or the act of reading (anything) made into content, the wrong/right material, a proper inappropriate, productive almost-mess as the only way to describe a reordering without/before knowing what this looks like…
“And by so doing it becomes a situation as well as, or even instead of, a location that is architecturally, culturally, or socially determined. A place that slides between positions. potentials, instructions, opennesses, closures. Say, the site of language ratehr than inscription. Such a site might be imaged as the fixed form of the auditorium-as-industrial cinema transposed, decomposed, ruined, or disintegrated and reconstituted as if it might now more accurately occupy its own foyer—an engine room that might also by necessity otherwise regarded as marginal.” (Ian White, ‘Foyer’, in Poor Man’s Expression: Technology, Experimental Film, Conceptual Art, eds. Martin Ebner & Florian Zeyfang, 2011)
Text by Mike Sperlinger commissioned by LUX for a poster, part of the MULTIPLEXING event, designed by artist Shakeeb Abu Hamdan.
First staged at PeckhamPlex in London in late 2014, MULTIPLEXING was represented in Glasgow on 21 March, 2017. Contributing artists were selected from the LUX Associate Artists Programme 2012/2013, a course facilitated by Ian White between 2007 and 2013: Richard Bevan / Rebecca Birch / Katheryn Elkin / Ian Giles / Tom Lock / Edward Thomasson / Richard Whitby / Rehana Zaman.
Mike Sperlinger is Professor of Writing and Theory at Oslo Academy of Fine Art