A Day at the American Museum of the Moving Image

Now that it’s summer, the outer boroughs are awaiting exploration – on a warm Sunday afternoon, I crossed the East River to Astoria, Queens to visit the American Museum of the Moving Image.

Upon arrival, I couldn’t help but noting the museum’s location – the building is located on a conspicuous block of 35th Avenue in Astoria that, in addition to the large white stone and glass museum structure, sports a gargantuan and modern glass building that houses Frank Sinatra High School of the Arts, as well as the regal and historic Kaufman Astoria Studios.  This artistically dense section of Astoria not only stands out visually on an otherwise ordinary Queens thoroughfare, but also embodies a meeting between new ideas and old.  The location contextualizes the museum’s aims – an attempt to convey the progression of ideas – over time, towards artistic expression through image – over time.

Ken Jacobs’s “Georgetown Loop”, the first exhibit I encountered and the second part of a two-part series on Jacobs (named Two), seemed to portray this generational clash perfectly.  Jacobs’ work often manipulates found footage – here, Jacobs takes a grainy 1903 film of a train running through the Rocky Mountains, loops it, and superimposes a backwards copy of the loop beside it to create a kaleidoscope effect.  This made it difficult to perceive reality – not only were these foreign landscapes being warped, but the viewing room itself was a bare, white space with its benches slowly turning into floor and wall.  As the loop churned through different forms, I pondered the meaning of the original film itself – this early film exercised the capabilities of new image-capturing technology at the turn of the 20th century, and here, Jacobs similarly illustrates the effect of a simple editing trick, almost 100 years later.

I was then persuaded by a museum attendant to enter a small theater that was showing episodes from the 1939 sci-fi serial Buck Rogers.  Here, the museum continued on a theme of ancient futurism – the theater, adorned with mummies, showed a film that portrayed space travel and extraterrestrial encounters on movie sets that probably doubled as sets for Day of the Locust-eque ancient epics.  Beginning in this theater, and continuing throughout the exhibits surrounding it, the museum paid excessive tribute to the culture and process that surrounds Hollywood.  There were exhibits dedicated to branding, costume design, set design, soundtracks, etc – I was surprised there wasn’t a “THIS IS WHY YOU SHOULDN’T PIRATE MOVIES” sign somewhere, although maybe I just didn’t look hard enough.  This section was endearing, kitchy, at best – a faulty “magic mirror” machine superimposed “classic movie outfits” onto a mirror-image of the viewer.

detail from Daniel Rozin’s "Trash Mirror No. 3"

Speaking of mirrors, a current fixture of the museum, on view until August 15th, is Daniel Rozin’s Trash Mirror No. 3, a “mirror” that mechanically moves 500 pieces of flattened trash to match the viewer’s reflection.  Rozin’s work generally experiments with digital and mechanical recreations of the viewer – another work of his, Straw Mirror, was on display, creates a digital composite of the viewer in “straws” on a screen.  Trash Mirror appears to be a quasi-political statement that makes literal a reflection of waste on humans, although maybe he was just trying to do something neat.

Interactive, technophilic exhibits like Rozin’s work littered an upper floor of the museum.   This profusion of dynamic sculpture, video game, and 3D (doesn’t cost you double, though!) visual art gives the museum a dense flare of new technological expression that is hard to find in other galleries around the city.  This dark section of the museum, its walls covered in colorful geometric projections, created the impression of a new frontier in art – from its setting to its content.  Particularly stunning was Pablo Valbuena’s “Augmented Sculpture” – a right-angled sculpture with illusory projections to boot, set against a black backdrop that materialized the vibrant piece within a formless and empty space.

These exhibits dedicated to new technology make the trip to Queens worth it.  Not that the trip is particularly difficult – 5 subways are located within a few blocks, and it’s just over the river.  For a museum that unfortunately doesn’t register as a first choice for many museum-going New Yorkers, the building is expansive (recently renovated), the exhibits are wide-ranging, and there is way more than enough to see in a day – and that’s without attending the museum’s film screenings which occur multiple times per day.

Just added to the Free Museums List with CUID!!!!!!!


Nathan Albert

CC ‘13

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