A free public movie theater tucked in a residential block of Bushwick is bringing short, silent films to people who are observant enough to stop and look around. Peephole Cinema is a miniature cinema collective created by artist and educator Laurie O’Brien. This New York-based small screen, which opened in July of last year, is the third iteration of her public art project: the first one started in San Francisco in 2013, and the second one, a year later in Los Angeles.
This unconventional theater operates as an alternative gallery of sorts, and experiments in animation and filmmaking. The inspiration for this discreet screen, which is viewed through a dime-sized peephole, came from O'Brien's background as an animator who wanted to open up the world of cinema to people outside of her industry.
“I would go to a lot of animation festivals and I noticed that the only people being exposed to these short films were other animators. I was interested in exposing these films to a wider audience, rather than have it be exclusive,” O'Brien told Gothamist. “I started thinking about pre-cinematic devices and public art that was free for everyone.”
O’Brien’s requirements for the films she shows in all three of her satellite locations are that they are silent, experimental, and short. But at the Brooklyn location, located at 97 Wilson Avenue between Troutman and Starr, brevity is an even bigger concern. “I’m interested in this idea of short attention spans, which seemed fitting for New Yorkers,” she says. “We went from [watching films] in a movie theater to viewing films on small devices like phones... I’ve found that the shorter films are much more successful.”
The films shown in Brooklyn are no more than 10 to 20 seconds long, and run on a continuous loop 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. O’Brien’s interest in experimental, non-narrative films is a personal one, to be sure, but is also rooted in practicality. “[The film] is constantly looping, so it doesn’t make sense to have a beginning and an end. People can encounter it at any time. That’s why I shied away from anything narrative.” Bad Translation is the short currently on display, and is guest-curated by Dani Newman, Community Director at GIPHY. Films are generally rotated every two months.
The Wilson Avenue location was chosen, in part, because of the foot traffic, but it took the artist three years to find the perfect space to house her tiny experiment, thanks to one important stipulation. “I found the location in Bushwick because a lot of the metal grates [in front of storefronts] come down at night, and it was super important for me to find a spot that was available to the public 24/7,” O'Brien explains. And as part of the project's community outreach, she's piloting a project in collaboration with a nearby middle school to teach kids how to make silent shorts, which will then be screened through the peephole.
O'Brien has another temporary installation planned with Maysles Documentary Center in Harlem coming soon. But this Brooklyn-based public art project, which she likens to “a moving image version of the alley mural,” is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Says O’Brien: “I do think there’s something interesting about a tiny silent screen and how it doesn’t dominate the space or the spectator’s time.”