At the halfway point in the run of Cosmos Cinema, the digital platform for moving image art that is part of the 14th Shanghai Biennale, we can begin to assess its larger effect within the context of the biennale, but also within the general context of online moving image programs. Cosmos Cinema – the online component – is structured in 19 sections that unfold on a weekly basis. Each week a new work of film art or video art is made available in open access. These works are by artists who are featured in the IRL gallery exhibition of the biennale. 

As such, the online platform is a way to bring some of the works presented on-site in Shanghai to a global audience. This has a central importance to the entire conception of the show, because the very theme of the biennale is “Cosmos Cinema” – meaning not only that Cosmism and a concern for things interstellar is an organizing element, but also that cinema as an art form is a chief concern animating the exhibition in toto, which is an incredibly rare thing for a major exhibition situated firmly within the sphere of visual arts.

The opening program in week 1 focused on early cinema and the concept of space travel. A standard move in the playbook for curating cinema would be to show films by the canonical pioneer Georges Melies. Instead, the curators (Anton Vidokle, Zairong Xiang, Hallie Ayres, Lukas Brasiskis and Ben Eastham) have chosen to focus on lesser known works by R.W. Paul, Segundo de Chomón and Enrico Novelli. These fascinating depictions of space travel and encounters spanning from 1906 to 1910 offer new cinematic visions from the dawn of the medium and situate the program in a rigorous historical timeline – though we quickly progress to contemporary work from the early 21st century. Major names are included in the contemporary programs, such as Diemantas Narkevicius, Agnieszka Polska, Saodat Ismailova and others. They are grouped under such themes as Futurism, interplanetary movement and more. What results is a bountiful selection of works – some shorts, some features and some multi-channel installations – that explore a frontier of possibilities not just limited to the cosmos, but also exploring imagination, technology, ecology and other consequential matters. 

One of the newest pieces on show is Random Access (2023) by He Zike. Described as a science fiction film set in a “data center cluster” in China, we watch two characters travel through the city and who are exposed to flashes of ancient memories as well as future imaginaries as a result of the crash of the main data center. The form of this short is something like techno noir, with a former taxi driver who roams a desolate post-apocalyptic landscape, ruminating in a forlorn voiceover narration about her life, not knowing which direction to turn and being an “old bird lost in the clouds” rather than the cyborg she is confused for. The film is a nice mood piece with a sensitive visual texture, but the overall concept becomes a bit repetitive – we too, as viewers, are left to wander with very little authorial mooring. Still, this work represents a wonderful opportunity to encounter contemporary alternative filmmaking from China. One would expect that the curators will offer more from the country in the continued run of Cosmos Cinema.

The online platform built for Cosmos Cinema is a minimalist construction. After a brief animation that features the name of the show over a hazy white screen, the calendar view opens up, which is a simple listing of the 19 weeks of the program, along with the theme explored in each week. One has to click on the theme/week combination in order to reveal the title and description of the work presented. The films and videos are only accessible for their allotted week, which gives the entire curated offer the feel of a live program that you must catch in rhythm. There is ample time and space for the program to unfold, and somehow it makes an intervention into the supersonic speed of digital cultural flows as experienced online. It allows one to appreciate the larger assembly and framework while also contemplating the ways in which it is in dialogue with the gallery exhibition in Shanghai. 

The video player in which the work is viewed is limited in functionality, as the volume control only offers a mute option, and there are no options to adjust the resolution quality of the image. However, every choice made in building the platform is an effort to not distract from the work on display, which means the online platform serves its purpose well enough. The remaining programs in Cosmos Cinema are not revealed until the next week’s selection opens, which provokes a nice amount of curiosity. The feeling produced is that we are in capable curatorial hands. So in short, Cosmos Cinema is must-see internet programming. Catch it while you can.     

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