Stay Up Late! Towards a Midnight Manifesto

Could a “midnight movies” model help solve the art space crisis facing DC and other cities?

Crowds gather for Berlin’s Videoart at Midnight series. Source: Videoart at Midnight on Facebook.

When you picture great jazz, cabaret, comedy, or DJ sets, you likely don’t picture bright daylight as part of the scene. Edgier, risk-taking art forms are incubated late at night, subsidized perhaps by prime-time entertainments earlier in the evening. Arthouse movie theaters and their most passionate fans have long used this model to organize screenings of challenging and niche fare at midnight.

In Berlin, a midnight series at the 400-seat Babylon Cinema takes this idea further. Since 2007, Videoart at Midnight has pushed the midnight movie model far past The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The series has packed the house for viewings of experimental video art typically only seen in small art galleries.

‘Videoart at Midnight’ Curator Olaf Stüber and artist Ulu Braun in conversation at the Hirshhorn Museum on Oct 16, 2015. Photo: Erik Moe

The project was founded by Olaf Stüber in collaboration with Ivo Wessel. Stüber spoke recently at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington along with Ulu Braun, a video artist who has been featured in Videoart at Midnight.

The series is draws upon Berlin’s strength as an international capital for video art. This practice can be a lonely one for artists who craft their works over many hours at a computer. These works can be isolating for audiences as well. They are typically projected on the walls of antiseptic galleries and viewed by hushed guests tiptoeing lightly to avoid disturbing the meditative gaze of other visitors.

It’s an experience I love, but it is hardly a communal one.

‘Midnight Movies,’ an influential book on cult films by J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum helped inspire Berlin’s Videoart at Midnight series.

Showing these works in a packed cinema upends that dynamic and brings new insight to the works. “It’s very important for artists to be present,” Stüber said. It is a unique opportunity for artists to hear collective gasps, sighs, laughs; to understand when the timing of a moment is slightly off; and to engage in formal and informal conversations of a sort that galleries are rarely able to facilitate.

For audiences too, the experience is special. Stüber compared Videoart at Midnight to a religious service. Like a midnight mass, there is a nervousness and anticipation as a crowd gathers to be challenged and transformed by words, art and sound aiming to communicate some shared truth.

Drawing Lessons, Drafting a Midnight Manifesto

Berlin is a unique place. Videoart at Midnight draws from that city’s uniquely strong art scene. Berlin could probably support such an event at 8 P.M.. Still, Stüber’s talk on Videoart at Midnight — and my own love of midnight movies — inspired me to think about how the midnight hour might be better used in arts organizing. Especially in cities like D.C., with a critical shortage of quality spaces for artists and audiences to come together.

  1. Make the midnight hour an hour for arts experiments. Arts venues ought to make every possibly programmable hour welcoming to hungry audiences, and to the artists who want to serve them. This is especially true in cities where art space is scarce. For every ten crowded bars open at midnight on a Friday or Saturday, there ought to be at least one crowded arts venue offering some kind of an engaging, challenging, substantial experience at midnight. Yes, there are additional costs associated with being open late, but surely concessions, donations, and the opportunity to bring new audiences into a space can help. Maybe the artists themselves will develop innovative ways of raising money. Adding a midnight experiment to a venue also stretches the impact of capital funds raised for building or remodeling a space, which ought to please donors. Another thought: over the past five years, D.C. has heavily backed the once-a-year Art All Night event, why not develop similar incentives for late-night art experiments in a few venues year-round?
  2. Cultivate that “Midnight Mass” vibe. What can you do that will inspire a feeling of nervous anticipation, mystery, and an eagerness to stay up late? Who are the artists and culture-makers that already have a passionate following in your community? Are they looking to experiment with new material, new ideas? How many people out at midnight are unsatisfied with the only obvious option available to them: grabbing a couple last beers to wind down with. How many would instead be interested in intoxicating ideas and aesthetics to keep them awake if the option were easy to access?
  3. Artists need public platforms in order to grow. According to Stüber, some of the most memorable Videoart at Midnight events lasted past 3 A.M., and were as rewarding for artists as for audience. In one case, Alice Creischer’s and Andreas Diekmann’s midnight event on subjectivity, and the elusive possibility of portraying truth in art, participating artists explored the topic until 4:30 in the morning. Sure, the audience had all gone home to bed by then, but the artists’ passionate conversation was fueled by the energy that only a public forum could provide. Are there conversations that aren’t happening between the artists in your community? And between audiences and artists? Why not have those conversations at midnight? [related: A Conversation On Artist-Led Platforms for Discourse and Community].
  4. Some midnight experiments will succeed. And then what?
  5. Balls. Leslie Ball founded the midnight Balls Cabaret as such an experiment in Minneapolis in 1991. Since then, it has helped thousands of performing artists of all kinds experiment with new material and find their voice. Here’s a 2011 profile marking its 20th anniversary. I brag often about my hometown and its strong support of the arts, but seriously… if a weekly, sober, experimental midnight cabaret can thrive through nearly 25 sub-zero Minnesota winters (and it isn’t even the only cabaret in town), surely D.C. — or whatever town you live in — can support a little more late night experimentation.

Let’s Start At Midnight

Here in D.C., I know there are plenty of great things going on late, but there are also a lot of locked doors in prime locations and a lot of great artists playing inaccessible, low-quality venues (the lovely living rooms of my friends houses, for example). This is a city that is wealthier (and more unequal) than its ever been. None of that makes sense. We’ve got work to do. Let’s start at midnight.

What kind of midnight experiments are you attending, running, excited about, or looking to launch (in D.C. or elsewhere)? What are the challenges you face as an arts venue or as an artist working the late shift? Do you want to volunteer your space as a lab for midnight experiments?


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