You are walking along the river at night. From somewhere offshore comes a sound – maybe a burst of amplified music ricocheting across the water – and a square flicker of light, drifting past you along the river, images reflected in the water. Is this an ad? Is it cinema? Is it legal?
This might have been something like the experience of The Floating Cinema, an aquatic film exhibition project founded by artist Jon Rubin in the mid 1970s. Rubin’s project began as a means of bringing experimental films to new audiences – and new, unexpected locales – but over its 30-year history, these forms and contexts shifted, touring cities small and large around North America and beyond.
The inspiration for the Floating Cinema came to Rubin on a trip to Guatemala in the early 1970s where, late one night, he witnessed a religious, ambulatory procession – possibly a funeral – outfitted with its own wheelbarrow-drawn generator to power lights and sound equipment. Later, back in the US and frustrated with some of the limitations of screening experimental film work in the same types of cinemas and galleries, always for the same audiences, Rubin became interested in the idea of finding new, unlikely audiences.
In 1977, Rubin initiated the Floating Cinema, with the assistance of a few friends and artists, including the artist Ena Swansea. Later, Rubin also benefited from the help of his close friend, the experimental filmmaker Peter Hutton. A former merchant marine, Hutton’s own aquatic films were featured in one of the later programs, a screening on the Hudson River near Poughkeepsie, New York, in October 2004. With two pontoon boats loaded onto a trailer, Rubin began making trips across the country, outfitting the boats with a 16mm projector, a rear projection screen to mount screenings on the Ohio and Allegheny Rivers in western Pennsylvania and Erie Barge Canal in upstate New York. This presented unique challenges: while amplified sound travels well over water, 16mm projectors throw a relatively dim image, meaning these initial screenings required dimly lit waterfront areas. And there was risk, too: a screen mounted on a boat on open water could well act as a sail that could carry the boat away in the wind—if it wasn’t torn to shreds first. But the project proved remarkably consistent and durable, and even resulted in an ongoing summer program sponsored by the New York City Parks Department to screen more commercial aquatically-themed films, including On the Waterfront and Jaws, from 1986 to 1991. Later still, in 2003-4, the project traveled to Rotterdam, where Rubin showed two of his own video projection pieces on a dual sided oval screen.
The heart of the project, for Rubin, lay in bringing art out of its usual institutional cloisters: “putting it out into the world and affecting people who might never have gone to an art museum in their lives.” Rubin had been aware of the experiments with expanded cinema in the 1960s and 1970s, such as Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome in Stony Point, New York, but saw even these as limited in their reach, still limited to the same coterie of art and cinema cognoscenti. The point, for Rubin, was one of decontextualization—both in bringing films to new audiences, but doing so in an environment where those audiences wouldn’t expect to encounter art—or, indeed, much of anything at all. The Floating Cinema project, then, wasn’t only a novel way to watch movies, but was also a way of creating and refining a new relationship between art, its audiences, and public space—a relationship that is always in flux.
Many thanks to Jon Rubin for his time and attention and for the use of the video above. You can find more information, images, and videos about The Floating Cinema at www.floatingcinema.org