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Film installation: Its time has come

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MATHIAS POLEDNA

When: Through Feb. 8

Where: Renaissance Society, 5811 S. Ellis

Admission: Free

Info: (773) 702-8670; renaissancesociety.org

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For the last show of its first 100 years, the Renaissance Society offers an allusive artwork about time. “Substance” by Mathias Poledna is a six-minute, 40-second film starring a Rolex wristwatch, circa 1980. Another dated, pre-digital device — a Century model projector from the 1970s — screens anachronistic 35mm celluloid in a continual loop.

The camera tracks the sweep of the second hand of this “Superlative Chronometer” sporting 18-karat gold and 26 jewels. A macro lens delivers ultra-close-ups in abstract focus. A rolling techno score evokes tiny revolutions of gears inside the timepiece. The gravity-free finale evokes a sci-fi film where a character recedes into the black void of deep space.

“Supporting ambitious artistic experimentation” is the stated agenda of the Renaissance Society, which commissioned “Substance.” To accommodate his temporary micro-cinema, Poledna permanently removed the overhead grid the gallery used since 1979 to hang its exhibitions. His design extends to the entryway on the fourth floor of the University of Chicago classroom building where the society is located. The Vienna-born, Los Angeles-based artist “conceived” a catalog about his multi-faceted artwork.

The Renaissance Society is also publishing a book for its upcoming centennial. The history of film and video art displayed there is detailed by Bruce Jenkins, a film, video, new media and animation prof at the School of the Art Institute. At the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis, he once curated film installations, as works like “Substance” are categorized.

A film installation is more than a film. It’s also the surroundings the filmmaker shapes for its viewing. Jenkins says his first encounter with this new art form in the 1970s was “like seeing a trailer for the future.”

“Until the advent of digital projection,” Jenkins recalls, “the disaffection that art museums typically had for that beast we call the film projector was because it was obtrusive, it made noise, it clattered, it was unwieldy to install and it tended to break down.”

Getting film installations into museums, like getting film courses into colleges, is the latest historical turn for the so-called Seventh Art. Films first got on vaudeville stages as an attraction, then fit into stagecraft. As early as 1898, Loop theater patrons beheld melodramas with racing horses and speeding trains projected as backdrops. “Everything in scenery we simulate on our stages will have to go,” speculated theater producer Charles Frohman. “The actors will perform in front of a living scene thrown on the stage by means of these motion pictures.”

The film d’art trend aimed for legitimacy by adapting literary classics to the screen. Movie palaces like the Chicago Theatre, open in 1921, gilded the industry with deluxe decor. Ten years later the Renaissance Society would screen its first avant-garde film. “Ballet Mecanique,” unlike the slo-mo “Substance,” featured kinetic editing and scoring.

George Segal’s sculpture-with-film titled “The Truck” went on display at the Art Institute in 1966. Six years later saw the Contemporary Film Art exhibition. A 16mm projector was set up in the A. Montgomery Ward gallery to screen work by 14 experimental filmmakers.

“Film is art,” proclaimed Camille Cook, the first director of the Film Center. “The film form is not a bizarre aberration — it is here to stay as an application of technology to a creative end.”

Cook previously rented space at the Museum of Contemporary Art for her Magic Lantern Society’s evening screenings. In 1977 the museum booked a film series titled “A History of American Avant-Garde Cinema” and in 1997 hosted a touring exhibition called “Art and Film Since 1945: Hall of Mirrors,” which included film installations. At 6 p.m. Tuesdaythere’s a free screening of Super 8 films by the San Francisco Bay Area collective SILT.

And at the Art Institute, there’s a film installation — like “Substance” — that muses on time and technology. In “Mixed Behavior,” Anri Sala frames a DJ at his sound board on a rooftop. It’s New Years in Tirana, Albania. Fireworks explode in the rain. The mixer turns his knobs, as if cuing special effects in the night sky.