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A Cinema in My Living Room: An Interview with Microlights Co-Founder Ben Balcom

Image courtesy Ben Balcom.

Hugo Ljungbäck

Digital film exhibition and online distribution platforms have for the past two decades been hailed as revolutionizing agents in contemporary film distribution, as “leveling the playing field” between independent filmmakers and the Hollywood studios. While they have undoubtedly helped increase the visibility of independent filmmakers and their work, and in some instances launched their careers, experimental film and video artists have remained marginalized in most film exhibition practices.


Historically, art house cinemas offered an alternative venue and platform for these artists to share their work with local audiences, but as videotape sales conquered repertory programming and profitable foreign and independent films increasingly became standard fare at art house cinemas, Rebecca M. Alvin observes in her article, “A Night at the Movies: From Art House to ‘Microcinema,’” the more “risky work” of artists and documentarians was steadily dropped from most art house programs in the 1990s and early 2000s.[1]


Instead, smaller, independent, and community-based screening venues have taken on the responsibility of screening this “risky,” often noncommercial work. As Alvin describes them, these venues take up residence “not only in actual movie theaters, but also in alternative spaces like tractor trailers, cafes and bars, church basements, and even health clubs.”[2] Alvin calls these spaces “microcinemas,” and traces their lineage back to the San Francisco screening venue Other Cinema, founded and programmed since its inception in the 1980s by Craig Baldwin. While she makes a case for Other Cinema as a predecessor to the contemporary microcinema, the term microcinema itself, she explains, has its origins with Rebecca Barten and David Sherman, founders of Total Mobile Home microCINEMA in the mid-1990s.[3]


Though there have been attempts to document the twenty-plus-year history of microcinemas in recent years, most notably through INCITE: Journal of Experimental Media’s “Exhibition Guide,”[4] a special issue devoted to microcinemas and alternative programming, the field has remained largely understudied. Donna de Ville has also carried out crucial work by studying and documenting microcinema venues in “The Persistent Transience of Microcinema (in the United States and Canada),” and through her extensive and pioneering fieldwork, she has offered some crucial insights about the difficulties of the study of microcinemas: “Due to the transitory nature of these sites . . . [microcinemas] often come and go with only a newspaper article, Facebook reference, or blog post to confirm their existence, or, in many cases, only remain as memories of organizers and participants, necessitating a particular methodology suited to an ever-shifting object of study.”[5]


In an attempt to continue the important work carried out by INCITE, de Ville, and others, and to learn more about the curatorial practices of small and independently run exhibition spaces, I conducted an interview with Ben Balcom, co-founder of Microlights, a microcinema based in Riverwest, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Balcom is an Associate Lecturer in the Department of Film, Video, Animation, and New Genres at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and a 2015 recipient of a Mary Nohl Individual Artist Fellowship. His 16mm films and video work have screened worldwide, in such venues as the European Media Art Festival, Antimatter Media Arts, Ann Arbor Film Festival, and Slamdance.


Since 2013, Balcom has both individually and collaboratively programmed Microlights, a microcinema specializing in the exhibition of contemporary experimental or artist-made film and video works, and hosted over 30 film and video artists from around the world. Programming around ten screenings per year, Microlights has a strong emphasis on community engagement, and focuses on having visiting artists present for Q&As. Balcom believes it is important that the audience gets a chance to interface directly with the artists, but acknowledges the difficulties of pursuing this form of programming as opposed to archival or repertory programming.


As a programmer and as a filmmaker who has himself travelled across the country on microcinema tours, Balcom offers an enlightening perspective on the role and importance of microcinemas in the contemporary film exhibition landscape. The following interview is not only offered as an oral history of the Milwaukee art house exhibition scene, but as an attempt to outline the financial precariousness, practical operations, and curatorial project of a contemporary microcinema.



Interview (conducted in person, December 2017)


            HL: Can you elaborate on calling yourself a microcinema?


BB: It can be difficult to figure out exactly what the right word is. We are not a “cinema proper.” We have had permanent spaces, but we have also operated in a more nomadic way. A microcinema is a good shorthand to suggest a history of North American alternative exhibition. There are many microcinemas around the country, which tend to be small, DIY, artist-run film exhibition spaces that all have their own unique shapes and focus on platforming contemporary moving image artists. “Micro” is a small space and it is operated on a “micro”-to-non-existent budget.


            HL: Do you prefer the term microcinema over pop-up cinema?


BB: I think pop-up sounds like a bunch of other things, other genres of retail, like pop-up stores and pop-up shops. It really does feel more itinerant, and it sounds more intentional. What I like about microcinema is that it suggests a kind of permanence, suggests there is a home-base, and that it is there to stay, where you can always find it. Pop-up is the less pretentious way to say nomadic, or “wandering cinemas.” I think it felt more appropriate for our third year, when we were collaborating with Woodland Pattern, INOVA, and The Green Gallery. We were doing more stuff in different spaces, so its mobility was really something we were experimenting with a little bit more. The Microlights identity was more than just a space, it was a project. Ultimately, I think pop-up has a more commercial connotation. With microcinema, its function is in its name.


HL: Have microcinemas been an important venue for you as a filmmaker, venturing with your own work?


BB: Definitely. The discovery of a real network of microcinemas was an eye-opening experience for me. I was a year out of college. Josh Weissbach, a friend of mine from college, and I knew of other artists taking their work on the road. There was a precedent set that, much like an independent, underground band, you could be a film artist and create exposure for yourself by taking your work to different venues. Bill Brown and Roger Beebe are two people who specifically come to mind, who have taken their work on tour from venue to venue. Bill Brown visited us in college, and he responded to our gripes about not getting into film festivals by saying: “Well, if you are unhappy with how much exposure you are getting, just do it yourself. Take a leap, take your work, package it, and see who will respond.”


So, Josh and I decided to be ambitious and take our own films on the road. We had enough work to do a joint screening, so we started doing research by putting literal thumbtacks in a literal map on a literal wall. We were hitting up blogs, searching Facebook and the Internet, and looking at artists’ websites, combing through CVs to find venues to create a master list of places that exhibit cinema in one way or another—some were venues that also did music, some were “proper cinemas,” and everything in between. Then we just blanket-emailed as many venues as we could and started creating a roadmap.


Had we not discovered this network of microcinemas, something like this would not have been possible. It was a much more pervasive phenomenon than we first understood, and it enabled us to go on the road for three months, hitting as many venues as possible. We screened in 22 states, with over 50 shows. Among others, we went to Vermont, and showed our films at the Bread and Puppet Theatre, which is like the furthest thing from a cinema, but they are radical artists and do weird stuff. It was a crazy show. And after the tour, we both crashed and burned in our families’ homes, respectively. I went entirely broke and had to move back to my parents’ place for a few months.


Discovering that we could create these experiences for ourselves set a precedent for me when I eventually moved to Milwaukee, because there was no mystery about what a space could be. I had all these pictures in my head and, if anything, all these spaces that I saw and all these communities I was exposed to provide a certain amount of permission to try something. I think that model of exhibition continues to be very pertinent for emerging, experimental moving image artists—just bundling your own work or collaborating with someone else and moving around and setting up shows is something that is very prevalent. I would say three months across the country is the worst version of it. Today, I would break it up into regions—a Northwest tour, a Southwest tour, a Midwest tour, a Northeast tour. It is not necessarily a money-making endeavor, but it is a way to get your work out there.


            HL: What prompted you to start your own microcinema once you moved to Milwaukee?


BB: Josh prompted us to start something. He has been an important collaborator. Back when we lived in Western Massachusetts, we did this short-lived thing called The Emerging Filmmaker’s Showcase at Amherst Cinema, where we worked. We were shoveling popcorn and starting movies, and we thought, “we work at a movie theatre, can we do a couple of weird little screenings?” And that was our first experiment with exhibition. It was really fun, though a little bit selfish. Our first show was of our own work, and all our friends came, but it was cool. The second show was of other filmmakers we knew. I think we did three shows.

So, we had already played with this project of programming work and making events happen and it was very exciting. Then we were both living in Milwaukee. Before I moved up here, Josh had already been part of a short-lived screening series called Lightstroke with two of his MFA colleagues, which hosted screenings at a Yoga studio. Slowly over time he said, “we should do something, we should start a screening series.” He would make the suggestion, and I would waffle, and the conversation would end. This repeated itself a number of times. I did not want to screen at a Yoga studio. I kept saying that if we were going to do a screening series, it would be very important to have a space we could call our own, which was very quickly the thing that always ended the conversation. What and where would it be?


I found myself in this position in the middle of a move. A friend of mine and I were apartment hunting. Then we found this one very strange apartment building that had the ugliest carpet, but these massive rooms, and it was really cheap. We would both have big studio spaces, and it just happened to be above an old bar space. We walked into the apartment on the first day and looked to our left, and I saw this old, unused former bar and immediately this thing exploded in my brain and I thought, “that is a cinema.” It was a long, rectangular space. It is so silly that it was ever a bar—it was just big enough to probably seat ten people, a couple of people standing, and that was it.


Josh had started this conversation, and he was really turned on by what they had been doing with Lightstroke—the activity of creating public screenings. Then I moved into this apartment, and I saw this bar as a golden opportunity. They had a full flat-top grill, a beautiful old bar, and two weird public bathrooms—a His and Hers, there was a urinal, it was awful—but the space was a big rectangle with perfectly tall ceilings. Over the course of a year I realized nothing was happening with that space, so I asked the landlords what they would do with it. “Would you ever consider letting a single person like me have a screening series in there?” At first the answer was a hard and fast no, because they wanted to convert it to a two-bedroom apartment, which was going to be a pretty weird project. But a month later they said, “well, maybe.


I felt like, if I am going to take a risk, and do this precarious thing—grad school and student loans—why not do this thing? The space also had a tiny little kitchen and a tiny little room off the back. I would move into the backroom, have a kitchen, and I would have a living room that could double as a cinema. Eventually the landlords said yes, removed the bar, painted the walls, and did some simple renovations in the kitchen. The space was affordable, around $600 a month for this massive space for myself. Somewhere in there, Josh and I were like, “we are going to do this.” This was the only way I could see us actually doing a screening project. We would have a space that looked like a storefront, so we could get attention, and we would have full control of the space. So, ultimately, the landlords came around to this idea, because they saw that right down the block there was a gallery that popped up in this very similar old storefront space, and they saw that this was not actually that crazy.


            HL: So, you have this space secured. What happens next?


BB: We had many discussions. What would this become? What do we call it? What is the function, the purpose, and who are the first artists? Are we programming contemporary artists or retrospective work? There were real disagreements. There is something selfish about curation. We both saw it as an opportunity to see more, to fill in a gap and see what we wanted to see, but what we wanted to see diverged a little bit. Josh immediately wanted to rent archival prints of experimental film works that we would not have an opportunity to see otherwise, and screen them for the public. I thought, “no, if we are going to get an audience, we need to have contemporary artists here in the space.” After much deliberation, we ultimately decided to go in this direction, and came up with names of artists that we wanted to screen, and the first screenings were cobbled together from a list of priorities of who we thought would be great to have in town, slowly working our way through those lists.


Josh and I collaborated for the first year, before he got married, and he and his wife, Amy, moved to Connecticut. Then I programmed Microlights alone for a year in the original space, which was exciting and terrifying and stressful and intense. I had always been alone in the space, but I had had the emotional support of the project. It was the project that had made the space possible, and made it seem legitimate to stay in this crazy apartment. It was always a lot more intimidating to reach out to artists and put programs together in front of a public, and having a year of Josh and I doing it together made me not think twice about the space. It was such a weird thing to be doing, but it was a really successful year. We were hosting very important artists, and we were moving very quickly to get ourselves on the map. Before I thought it even felt appropriate, I realized we had a small reputation. Artists I knew, knew of us.


Then the space truly became financially unsustainable. What was not included in the rent was the crazy cost of heating the space in the winter. There was a real “oh shit” moment when, in the middle of the first winter, I got a $1000 heating bill, and I thought, “oh fuck, I have made a mistake.” It was hard to pull myself away from that space, but I am glad I am out of it.


            HL: At this point, you assumed a more nomadic presence in the Milwaukee film scene?


BB: Yes, we started programming with Woodland Pattern Book Center, which has always been a really important part of the landscape here in Milwaukee. On-and-off, Carl Bogner has programmed various screenings there through the Milwaukee LGBT Film/Video Festival and through UWM. They have a model that makes them capable of facilitating a lot of different things, in that they take part of the money, which made the financial side of things a little different for us. But I saw Woodland Pattern as an obvious community space, as a resource that was available, and as an exciting collaboration, thinking about ways to expand our network.


Microlights has an unfortunately limited audience or community reach. I like to think of us as accessible, but in many ways because of the work we show and the promotion we do or do not do, we have a limit to our visibility. I thought Woodland Pattern would really change that—we could get on their mailing list, we would be tapping into a community center that has been there for decades, so it seemed exciting. I approached them, and they were really excited about it. So, we did a year there, and it felt good. But it felt very different atmospherically. The vibe, the feel, the social aspect of it was different. The first Microlights space, even to a fault, felt really social. We encouraged people to bring their own beer, and sometimes they brought way too much. It was loose, and at times sloppy, and some saw it as a way to see art but also party a bit—not that it had a party vibe, it was still serious. But it was my home, so people could do whatever.


Woodland Pattern could not have been more of a stark difference. It was in a bookstore, so it immediately felt more formal. The space was way less casual, and there was no beer. The first years we had used donations and suggested donations. At Woodland Pattern, there was a determined entrance fee, and they would take half of that. People would show up at the last possible minute, so it was stressful for me and the artists as there was a real uncertainty about audience size. Whereas, at the original space, people would show up early and stay late, at Woodland Pattern they showed up late and left immediately. It felt a little less social, partly because it was in the back of a shop. Still, it was a good year of programming. We had some great guests, and Jesse McLean, who had become my new collaborator and co-programmer, and I did our first thematic program, which I really treasured. It was successful and fun.


A year later, my friend John Riepenhoff bought a building in Riverwest and curated the residence of that space so that it could become more than just an apartment building—a multi-faceted, collaborative, collective art space. John got Nicholas Frank to live on the first floor, which had a ready-made storefront gallery space. He created a gallery called The Open, and I ended up moving into an apartment on the second floor of the building, with the idea going into it that Microlights would start doing programming in The Open. That returned a little more of a social, casual, accessible feeling to Microlights. The shows quickly started feeling better—a lot more social, friendlier, more open, more visible. It immediately felt more like the original space. We have been in this space for two years now, and are currently the primary occupant of that space, though there are a lot of other art projects going on in the building. I feel like we finally have a permanent home again, and a visible, identifiable space that is synonymous with Microlights, and I cannot stress how valuable that is.


            HL: How has Microlights’ financial situation changed over the course of these moves?


BB: Officially, Microlights has no budget, which is complicated and has meant a lot of different things, and ultimately amounts to a real inconsistency. There are not a lot of arts grants available to small DIY organizations. Most art funding sources want you to be a nonprofit, or a 501(c)(3), or an LLC, and we are none of those things. The double-bind is that it costs money to become those things, so we would have to spend money in hope to be eligible to get money, but there is no guarantee. So, we keep things shoestring, and do whatever we can, whenever we can. Until very recently, a majority of the time running this space has been an unofficial collaboration with UWM, in that all our gear was borrowed for years—the projector, the mixer, the speakers—which lowered the overhead. I paid rent for the space, but I did not have to invest in all this gear, which made the whole thing way more possible way quicker.


At first, I was so afraid that no one would come to something that cost $5, so we would just pass around a donation jar, and we did that model for a while. But quickly we realized that we had to try to generate some money for the artists, so we started doing suggested donations. Some venues do sliding scale fees, some do entrance fees, and I think all these decisions—from where you get your funding, how much you charge—are ideological to some extent, and something I have grappled with in different ways. It is important that anyone can come see the shows. I never want to turn anyone away if they cannot pay. Experimental media already struggles with visibility and accessibility in so many ways.


We give all donations received to the artist, because it is impossible for experimental media artists to make money in the world—they do not make money at film festivals, and they do not make a lot of money at microcinemas either. I like the idea that Microlights is a slight exception to the rule, in that it is not atypical for an artist to walk away with $100 in their pocket, which is not a lot of money in the scheme of things, but in the scheme of microcinemas it is quite a bit above average.


Navigating what it means to be a space that is DIY, that asks for money, has no money, but wants to give money to the artist, I have learned that prioritizing putting cash in the pocket of the artist is of the utmost importance. We do not have a lot else to offer. I can put someone up, I will buy them dinner, but it is hard to figure out what it means to have a space like this in the financially precarious world of experimental media. Luckily, we have a small, devoted, esoteric community that knows it is already interested in this stuff, and that seeks it out repeatedly. It is a community of mostly cinephiles, people who do not want to miss out on the next thing.


I have a really hard time passing up screenings. But every show someone says, “I am going to have to donate next time, I only have this, here is the change I dug up out of my car,” and I hope everyone understands that there is no bad blood, there is no judgement. I am just happy anyone walks through the door. That is the bottom line. People are generous in meeting the suggested donation, and occasionally add a little extra. Four and a half years later, I am still kind of shocked that it is still happening, and that people are still showing up almost every show, and we mostly have a great turnout. For us, that is a small audience, but it always feels significant.


            HL: What is the typical turnout?


BB: 20–30 people. On a slow night we might have 15, but in a small space, 15 still feels legitimate. It feels like enough for a visiting artist. I have had an audience of two, so I know how bad it can feel, but we have never had that at Microlights. I think the smallest audience we had once was just a graduate seminar class, with the professor and 6–8 grad students, and it felt small. We have had a few packed houses, in the region of 50 people. I think Sky Hopinka’s show had the biggest audience, with probably close to 60 people. People were on the floor, standing, sitting on each other’s shoulders. I have so much gratitude for the people who keep showing up. Once people start walking through the door I stop sweating.


HL: You have also occasionally partnered with UWM to help host artists. Last spring you helped organize a 16mm contact printing workshop with Australian artists Richard Tuohy and Dianna Barrie, followed by a Microlights screening. How do these partnerships come about?


BB: The first time Richard and Dianna came through, Kati Katchever set up a workshop and contacted us at Microlights and wondered if we wanted to host them, and it turned out their work was amazing, so we said yes. Then Richard contacted us again out of the blue, and told us they were in the States again, on tour, and wondered if we wanted to do another workshop- Microlights thing, and I said yes. Whenever we can get artists studio visits with graduate students, or class visits and workshops, to supplement what they get at their screenings, it makes it a little more financially viable for them.


The Milwaukee LGBT Film/Video Festival has been very supportive on a number of occasions, helping us host Malic Amalya and his partner for a two-night thing, which was also a collaboration with the Center for 21st Century Studies and the Midwest Interdisciplinary Graduate Conference. I get to be the curator in the middle of a perfect storm of small financial availabilities and opportunities. Sometimes there are also events where there simply are no funds, and I will reach out to an artist to let them know we are interested in hosting them, but I will lead with a transparency about the lack of budget. Sometimes we start longstanding conversations, and eventually I will reach out to other venues in the region, or the artists will themselves, and they will do a miniature version of what Josh and I did back in the day. One of us, either I in Milwaukee, or Christy LeMaster at the Nightingale Cinema in Chicago, or someone down in Iowa City, will catalyze an opportunity to get an artist here, and the artists will take advantage of the small constellation of venues available to them and do a mini-tour. Maybe one institution can provide the travel funds, and the rest of us benefit from having that artist in the region.


Sometimes it is even more casual than that. An artist might contact me and say, “I am in the area, I am trying to do stuff, is Microlights available?” Maybe I will say yes, and sometimes I will say no. On a couple of occasions, I have wanted to get an artist here so bad that I have paid out of pocket, which is not sustainable and not ideal, but I did it and I do not regret it. And I want Microlights to be able to present certain artists, and I want to be able to platform the work of artists that seem truly important and vital, so in certain instances I will do whatever I can to make that happen.


            HL: Do you try to sustain a “curatorial vision” within these perfect storms?


BB: We do not have an overarching vision, and we are limited to what is possible, which is “patchworky.” I would love to do something more cohesive in a way that I could put this person next to this person, followed by this person. And if I could have it my way, this would include archival work, which is expensive but for different reasons. Our programming consists of a random assortment of artists, for lack of a better term, but mostly contemporary artists, which in its own way is a vision—if nothing else unifies everything that people see at Microlights, it is that they come to see contemporary working moving image artists.


That said, sometimes when I talk to my audience, in by brain what I am doing is imposing this narrative on all the work you see. At the old space, I was thinking about what digital images were doing in a moving image landscape that had been dominated by film and celluloid and cinema, sort of crafting this narrative about an evolutionary shift in digital imaging that was relevant to moving image art and imposing that on the work of Basma Alsharif. I was imposing my own curatorial narrative on the presentation of an artist to force a big-picture theme when it was not necessarily appropriate.


Jesse and I perhaps look at similar artists. At times, I have tried to create a narrative for the pleasure of framing artists in different ways for an audience. We do create a list of dream artists, within the realm of feasibility. I think that does come with a certain attention to who is making what kind of work. Last fall we had a freakishly cohesive season, with one exception. We had a number of artists who were making important work in a similar vein, which could be wrapped up in this contemporary moment, all making digital work, work that was speaking politically about cinema and culture in different ways. That constellation was gold—hit after hit after hit. Maybe that is what you get when you program contemporary artists. They are all people who are on the circuit, and they feel very urgent and present.


Jesse and I are both very invested in the digital, or things that are not really concerned with medium at all. But there is really no consistency. We will go from Adam and Zach Khalil’s digital feature-length experimental documentary about the Ojibway myth to Mike Stoltz’s abstract gestural 16mm films. The exciting thing is that Microlights can contain all these things.


            HL: Have you ever “imposed” anything on an artist’s work that they have disagreed with?


BB: I try to be careful. I think it is important that critics and curators have a different language for what the artist does, but that language has to be extrapolated from the work itself, and it has to be about the work itself. I hope the artist gets to have a momentary encounter with their work, that is separate from what they would say about it. Really, all I am trying to do is say what is in the work. I really enjoy it when artists or curators have a read on my work when I am presenting, a take that jogs my brain into thinking about what I am actually doing in a different way, so I try to do the same for other artists. I think what has happened is I have asked bad questions in the Q&A. Once someone asked if we could start with an easier question. I jumped into the conceptual deep-end.


HL: This must be very individual for every filmmaker, too. Some have a very thoroughly developed language for their own practice, whereas others are not concerned with theory at all.


BB: You would be surprised. Sometimes the most conceptual work is motivated by the most literal or pragmatic decisions. I think often we make the mistake of assigning conceptualism to theory, but really, these are concrete decisions being made, often about medium, a cut, an edit, a sound, things like that. I think of Mary Helena Clark or James N. Kienitz Wilkins, whose work is really unpretentious. Sometimes it is very wrong to ask, “what do you think sound actually is?” because that is not what they are doing. They are thinking about constructing something.


Some artists need questions, some of them do not need anything to be ready to talk. Some have deep formulations of their own work, and if you ask them about an edit, they will start talking about theory, and some if you ask a theoretical question, they will talk about editing. It is totally unpredictable.


HL: Two graduate students in the film department, much like you and Josh did, recently started their own monthly screening series, aCinema, at Woodland Pattern. Do you feel that you are competing for the same audience?


BB: There is such a thing as oversaturation, but more is better, especially in a city like Milwaukee where more is possible—more galleries, more screening series, more events. I am so glad that these new things are popping up, because everyone is going to have different curatorial voices and tastes. There is a lot happening in the city, and that is what makes Milwaukee magical, and why I love being part of this landscape, this ecosystem. But it is crazy—you are a cinephile, and I am a cinephile, and we both want to see as much work as we can. But there is also that day where you think, “I just want to be home and do my own thing, without obligations.” Sometimes that happens on the worst days, and you miss out on really special things.


And Microlights is not a forever project. Or maybe it is. It is crazy that it has been around for almost five years already. If it were to sustain itself, we would need a more permanent space, more gear, more programming, more money, a bigger audience. It has had a really great and long lifespan already. But most likely, it will probably dissolve someday. And other things will come to fill the negative space it leaves behind—aCinema, or the next graduate student project. Or nothing will happen for years and no one will miss it.


It is important to acknowledge previously existing spaces in Milwaukee that served as a historical precedent, something I saw Microlights in a loose continuum with. When Stephanie Barber lived in Milwaukee, she ran a space called The Bamboo Cinema. Artistically, I was deeply inspired by her work, so her whole legacy was a big part of the narrative of Milwaukee for me, and she was a really important figure in the narrative of Milwaukee’s art scene as well. Milwaukee had a very special and oft-mythologized moment in the early 2000s, when the art scene was exploding with all these interesting people. They all had these spaces and were creating this artistic community that did not need any external validation. It was a boom of the artistic activity in the city. That is a bigger story than I am able to give a full narrative to. But Barber’s cinema space loomed large in my head as a thing that Riverwest once had, which gave a certain amount of permission somehow. It was a thing that Riverwest could sustain, needed, wanted, and had had before. I am excited, maybe prematurely, to think of Microlights as a little node in this historical roadmap of what the Milwaukee art scene has been and continues to be.





Balcom clearly echoes the “transience” which de Ville observes in microcinemas, as he emphasizes that Microlights is but a “node in this historical roadmap,” and that other venues will eventually assume its place. To Balcom, the venue itself is only secondary to the function it serves in the community, bringing together artist and audience to meet new thinking and talk about art. While Balcom continues to emphasize the importance of having artists present for these conversations, he acknowledges that this is sometimes financially unviable, and that he often must rely on a “perfect storm” of surrounding circumstances to secure some of his programming.


As he demonstrates, microcinemas do not simply operate with limited resources, but often at a loss, and they require a significant commitment from programmers both timewise and financially to sustain their operations. Though partnering with community centers and other institutions offers a certain security, it often results in compromises in other areas of operation and can even be detrimental to the community-building ethos of the microcinema itself.


As both a programmer and a filmmaker, Balcom emphasizes that artists typically do not make any money at experimental or underground film festivals—on the contrary, the film festival circuit often requires artists to spend money on submission fees without any returns. Similarly, online distribution platforms offer only limited monetary gains, if any. In this context, Balcom argues, the microcinema not only serves the community, but becomes a vital support system for filmmakers and artists with little to no other income. As such, because of the not-for-profit nature of microcinemas, they will remain the only place in town for cinephiles to see truly “risky work.”



End Notes


[1] Rebecca M. Alvin, “A Night at the Movies: From Art House to ‘Microcinema.’” Cineaste 32, no. 3 (2007): 4.


2 Ibid., 5.


3 Ibid., 6.


4 Brett Kashmere and Walter Forsberg, eds., “Exhibition Guide,” special issue, INCITE: Journal of Experimental Media 4 (2013).


5 Donna de Ville, “The Persistent Transience of Microcinema (in the United States and Canada).” Film History 27, no. 3 (2015): 114.






Alvin, Rebecca M., “A Night at the Movies: From Art House to ‘Microcinema.’” Cineaste 32, no. 3 (2007): 4–7.


de Ville, Donna. “The Persistent Transience of Microcinema (in the United States and Canada).” Film History 27, no. 3 (2015): 104–136.


Kashmere, Brett and Walter Forsberg, eds. “Exhibition Guide.” Special issue, INCITE: Journal of Experimental Media 4 (2013).

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