Arie Altena

On Verticality

Interview with Bart Rutten

Arie Altena


In February 2014 four screenings of Sonic Acts’ Vertical Cinema project were presented in the galleries of the older section of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. The programme was accompanied by four lectures by experts on cinema, video, new media, and contemporary art, one of which was Bart Rutten. After it was over, Arie Altena sat down with Bart Rutten, at that time still curator of modern and contemporary art at the Stedelijk Museum, to gauge his impressions. Originally published as Sonic Acts Research Series #13 at

Arie Altena: What was your first reaction when you heard of Sonic Acts’ intentions to produce some new films for a specially developed set-up for the vertical display of 35 mm films?

Bart Rutten: When I heard of the plan, I was immediately very enthusiastic. It touches very directly on an important function of art because it asks questions about things that we always assume are simply just what they are, the ‘landscape’ orientation of rectangular cinema screens, for example. It shows that things can be different, and that you can also think differently. Moreover, this project does so in a way that can be understood by a wide audience. Sonic Acts’ idea was, I think, in the first instance to develop a project that would be enthusiastically received by people who make experimental films and who think about visual culture. And of course you also want the outside world to share your enthusiasm, and be absorbed by it as much you are, and that they might even see with new eyes, as it were. That should also be the reason for producing new work. I think you’ve achieved this with the Vertical Cinema project. Now I’ve seen it, I think the only weakness is that 90 per cent of the programme consists of abstract films. But I also understand that as this was the first time, you mainly wanted to work with artists with whom you had previously had successful collaborations. In an e-mail Jan Dietvorst sent me after the presentation he mentioned that Philip Guston also only became really good when he started inserting cartoons into his paintings. I thought that was a wise remark. I believe that narrative and the figurative hold great potential for Vertical Cinema so I hope that you continue with it – or that someone else takes over the baton and responds in some way. Sonic Acts has truly defined the medium of ‘vertical film’. You’ve designed it, made it and produced it, so now the infrastructure exists. Because you work with abstract artists it can also handle minute details relating to colour, sound, projection; everything is perfect. Usually more attention is paid to such aspects when working with abstract artists. But now that the abstract and formal aspects of the vertical format have been explored, and the monumentality of the design has been defined, the prospect for narrative and figurative films beckons. There is a film by Matthew Barney where, as a clown, he explores the frame of the screen. I think it’s a very nice image. Then he climbs upwards along the walls of his theatre, and tests if he can feel the screen. I would love to see an idea such as this in Vertical Cinema.

AA: During the development phase of the project we often talked about the opportunities the format offers for other forms of narrative...

BR: Actually, you should ask someone like Jasper van den Brink to do something for a future presentation. He once made a video with a camera that was attached to a kite, the higher it went, the more scenery you saw and the larger the image became. That was a beautiful example of a medium-specific or form-specific approach.

AA: In your lecture during the side programme of Vertical Cinema you mentioned a large number of examples of the use of verticality in video art, but you also identified several things that we ourselves had not paid much attention to such as the history of video games and Pac-man.

BR: I found that aspect fascinating. It made me think of video consoles with vertical screens. For a long time it was quite ordinary to have a vertical screen on your computer. For word processing it was logical to have a screen in A4 format. So there was also a moment when vertical screens were ‘normal’.

AA: In his lecture on verticality in film, Finnish media theorist Erkki Huhtamo took us back to the nineteenth century, but you’re focusing on pioneers in video art...

BR: But Erkki Huhtamo did mention Bill Viola in passing, and so I thought, ‘I want to say something about these issues’, because it involves an important aspect that relates to exploring the image. And with Bill Viola you have video art that is about rotating and tilting monitors, although Nam June Paik is the originator of this idea. With Viola it involves the destruction of the image to create something new. He produced his first piece in the late 1970s; Paik’s most famous work is from 1974. They had to defend their position, write a lot about their work, and explain it. The generation that followed – that of, say, Douglas Gordon – simply assumed that everything could be done with video. Last year was actually a very interesting one for video art, as two excellent and very different solo works were presented by video artists of the later generation. First, there was one by Steve McQueen in Schaulager (Switzerland), and then there was the piece by Pierre Huyghe at the Centre Pompidou (Paris). These two works wonderfully demonstrate the different approaches to dealing with the moving image. One is very precise and monumental, while the other is the exact opposite of monumental, very associative and free. One is closed and oppressive, the other is open and light.

AA: So, tilting the screen is a fairly regular occurrence in the history of video art...

BR: The difference between experimental film and video art is that video artists often take the equipment for granted – they’re not known for using a screwdriver to modify it for their own ends. That’s also why I mentioned Stan VanderBeek in my lecture. He can definitely be considered as a founder of installation art because he essentially made the screening of moving images entirely his own thing. But there is a great desire to challenge conventions in video art, so monitors are rotated, or all sorts of filters are put in front of the projector beam, and so on. In video art tilting the screen is primarily a liberation from dogma. Nowadays, you can put a beamer on its side, but with a projector it cannot happen just like that. In older beamers the fan used to seize up if you tilted them. 

AA: Do you know of any artists who are working with narrative in a vertical format?

BR: Not so many. It also has to do with the lineage, if not the tradition, in visual arts to connect horizontality with landscape and narrative, and verticality with the portrait. The vertical format is still the best for portraits and representations of the human form. In video art the vertical format is very dominant in the work of Bill Viola and Gary Hill. I can’t immediately think of any examples where the vertical dimension is used as a storyline.

AA: Another striking feature of Vertical Cinema is the use of celluloid. I always find it remarkable that even artists who’ve worked in the digital domain from childhood – such as Telcosystems – have developed such a strong love for celluloid.

BR: It’s quite paradoxical at first. But I do understand the appeal of 35 mm film. If you work with 35 mm you can’t afford to be careless. Video is a sloppy medium. You turn it on and it always works. 35 mm is very precise. Matthias Poledna recently made a 4-minute animated film in the style of Walt Disney on 35 mm. Six hundred people produced the drawings. The precision in the end result was really impressive.

AA: You once said to me that Vertical Cinema could catch on now, as the idea of vertical films has become topical of late, also because of all the vertical iPhone videos and the ubiquitous vertical advertising screens.

BR: Those vertical advertising columns are designed to resemble iPhones. With smartphones, there is now an appealing and hip vertical format for the moving image. In fact, Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013) would have been an outstanding film to shoot vertically.

AA: But that hasn’t happened.

BR: Because the infrastructure isn’tavailable. This in turn is indicative of the difference between art and cinema. Cinema assumes there is a certain standard, and trusts that the infrastructure is there. Visual art is more distrustful of these standards. An artist looks at what the possibilities are.

AA: The screening of Vertical Cinema in the Stedelijk galleries, concurrent with Dan Flavin’s installation, with the audience sitting on the steps with headphones on was very different from the screening in the Minoritenkirche in Krems or in the Arminius Church in Rotterdam, which had the sound coming from large speakers.

BR: I don’t think the biggest difference was necessarily the sound. I thought it was that viewers looked down the screen, rather than looking up. That’s what I liked about the screening in our museum. The image came even closer to you and was more tangible. At the other presentations it was more like an apparition. I thought that it was nice to sit on the stairs. Vertical film is also very suitable for viewing from bleachers – then it becomes more like a circuit. The headphones added something too. With headphones you are very much inside yourself because your ears are closed off, yet at the same time you also share something with others. The sound is really personal, while the image is experienced collectively. This shared experience of the image is still something I consider really beautiful about watching a film in a cinema compared to watching one at home. You feel that you are part of something special. 


Bart Rutten’s Vertical Cinema lecture (2014) (in Dutch).
Jasper van den Brink
Website of the estate of Nam June Paik
Bill Viola
Gary Hill
Steve McQueen solo at Schaulager
Pierre Huyghe solo at Centre Pompidou
Mathias Poledna: Imitation of Life (2013, Austrian pavillion at the Venice Biennial, already a dead link, sigh...)

Bart Rutten (NL) has been fine arts conservator and collection curator at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam since 2008. In November 2014 he started as Head of Collections in the Stedelijk. His work as a curator covers the entire spectrum of visual art, with special attention for film and video art, conceptual art and installation art. (Bio 2014).

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Arie Altena