‘Expanded Cinema’ Course Brings Film Outside the Theater and Into the Ruby

“Self Portrait in a Blonde Wig” by Laura Asherman, MFA EDA ’23. All photos by Robert Zimmerman.

This semester, eight students displaced moving image work from the traditional theater space and into the halls of the Rubenstein Arts Center in a course called “Expanded Cinema,” offered by the Department of Art, Art History & Visual Studies. Students devised projects that explored their cross-disciplinary interests and worked with various mediums beyond film, including sculpture and other installation-based art forms.

Their semester-long endeavors culminated in a showcase titled PERMEABLES. According to Shambhavi Kaul, the course’s instructor and the director of undergraduate studies for Art, Art History & Visual Studies, the name was inspired by an installation by kinetic sculptor Jesús Rafael Soto called Pénétrables.

“Someone in class said, ‘I wish they were called permeables,’ and our made-up word just stuck with us,” Kaul said. “Compared to the cinema, in these installations there is a chance not only to enter—but also to pass through. I guess that makes them permeable.”

While regular class sessions were held in the Ruby’s film theater, the students familiarized themselves with the building’s vast rooms and corridors as they began visualizing the shape of their final projects. The Ruby is perhaps the only space on campus where students can continuously work on and display projects at this scale and, according to Kaul and several students, the projects would not have been possible without the help of the arts center staff.

“Out Outside” by Leo Ryan, MFA in Dance ’23
“Presence Portal” by Ava Navarro ’22

“One of the great opportunities we had this semester was to have the support of the Rubenstein Arts Center staff, who really facilitated and helped us treat the space as a blank canvas,” Kaul said. “That was a significant part of how such ambitious projects were achieved.”

The successful collaboration between this course and the Rubenstein Arts Center represents what becomes possible in curricular arts spaces—that is, designated spaces for instructional arts learning, experimentation, and practice. Marie-Louise Bennett, MFA EDA ‘23, noted that her project would not have been possible without the resources and space available at the Ruby.

“Having a space where I could keep the materials and construct the project was really valuable.”
—Marie-Louise Bennett, MFA EDA ‘23

“In the case of my installation, which was quite big, it would not have been possible to make this project if I had to pack it up and bring it to class every week,” Bennett said. “So having a space where I could keep the materials and construct the project was really valuable.”

The class worked closely with Christopher Scully-Thurston, venue and production management supervisor at the Ruby, to better understand the available spatial and technical resources for their projects. Scully-Thurston, an installation artist himself with work recently on view in the Ruby, helped students construct and install their projects.

“Who Is On the Other Side?” by Marie-Louise Bennett, MFA EDA ‘23
“Trapped in 2020” by Sherly Fan, MFA EDA ’23

“With location being such an important part of how you are going to construct the project and how people are going to receive it, the flexibility of looking at different spaces expands the possible outcomes,” Scully-Thurston said. “I think that limitation is often the mother of invention. And limitation does not necessarily mean a minimalist sort of outcome.”

In fact, the projects were far from minimal; many of the students constructed ambitious projects that took on conceptual approaches and interdisciplinary interests. According to Kaul, as the students began engaging with tough questions, they pulled in connections from other courses and applied them to their work.

“[Art resources] are all there, but it’s sometimes hard to find them. As a senior, I finally understand how to get what I need.” —Ava Navarro ’22

Emily MacDiarmid, MFA EDA ‘22, created an extension of the iconic Windows screensaver, “Bliss,” which combined walls and computers as screening surfaces. Bennett created a portal through which self-confrontation occurs through layered interactive elements. Spectators observed images of children projected on a large canvas before walking through the canvas into a space with mirrors, doors, and screens that reveal the perspectives of the children.

“Much of my work has to do with the way we see ourselves and others,” Bennett said. “My work is actually a little bit subversive, in that it lures you into taking on another perspective in a non-threatening and playful way through the practice of empathy.”

“Bliss” by Emily MacDiarmid, MFA EDA ’23

Trinity senior and Global Cultural Studies major Ava Navarro considered spatial occupation via the transmission of sound and movement. Her installation housed a microphone and speaker where anything, from the rustling of fabric to a revealing secret, could be transmitted and potentially heard by another spectator. For Navarro, this project represents the culmination of her involvement in the arts at Duke.

“It seems like the extracurricular and curricular sides of the arts don’t always connect,” Navarro said. “You have to piece together the resources you want from Duke yourself. They’re all there, but it’s sometimes hard to find them. As a senior, I finally understand how to get what I need.”

Space tailored to the needs of student artists, like the Rubenstein Arts Center, means a greater potential for creating at a high-level and broadening the reach of the resulting artwork.

“There is a way that social spaces naturally form around art,” Kaul said. “Having created these large scale projects, we were able to have a show, and the social space that formed around it means art became visible to our students, faculty, and staff on campus.”

Sarah Derris is a writer and filmmaker. She is a 2021 Duke Global Cultural Studies and Visual & Media Studies graduate from Winston-Salem, NC, and the former editor of The Chronicle’s arts & culture section, Recess. 

“Theatrical Window” by Juan Velazquez, MFA EDA ’23