Line Describing a Cone, 1973 (installation view at the Musee de Rochechouart, 2007)
ARTWORKER OF THE WEEK #68
At the turn of the millenium, Anthony McCall's oeuvre existed, much like history itself, between concept and lore. Though he stopped making work for 20 years, documentation and accounts continued to circulate of his groundbreaking "solid-light" films -- deceptively simple 16mm projections of stop-frame animation that no less than exploded the "monolithic" experience of the cinematic screen. In the seminal Line Describing A Cone (1973), the film of a dot becoming a line becoming a circle becomes, in space, a "real-time" growing cone of light. Shifting the focus of the viewing experience from the image to its material and spatial qualities, McCall moved the audience, in all senses of the word. Not only have these works been described as beautiful and magical, something akin to a communal experience has also been said to materialise. It's not difficult to see the value of McCall's work, with its prescient and spectacular criticality, re-staged for a contemporary context. Fortunately for us, he has also returned to his art practice and the Serpentine has mounted a retrospective of early (16mm) and more recent works (digital). Time doesn't often throw up a second chance so don't miss out.
NB: the Serpentine restrospective runs till 03/02.
This interview was conducted in person in January of 2008.
Tyler Coburn: How do you find the way reception to your work has shifted?
Anthony McCall: In the 1970s the work I made was shown mainly to other artists and filmmakers. If you went to any avant-garde film screening, I would say that three-quarters of the people in the audience were other filmmakers. It wasn't really a general public. That created something of a crucible, because we were closely involved with one another and one another's work. In London there was the London Filmmakers Co-op up in Camden Town. Here in New York there was the Collective for Living Cinema, Millennium Film Workshop, and Anthology Film Archives.
TC: I'm very interested in the rise, over the past decade, of the category, "artists' film and video," which is different from that of experimental or avant-garde film and video, and which has ties with galleries and museums. In a talk you gave at the Whitney in 2001, you mentioned that, even in the '70s, there was something of a rift between the two realms. It seems like you were circulating within an avant-garde film and video community in that era, whereas now your work has become emblematic of exhibition-based installation. Presumably a lot of this has to do with the people who are currently championing your work.
AM: The centre of gravity has shifted in the art world, such that time-based work -- video being one of them -- has become one of its central discourses. That's happened in the last 10 or 15 years. Despite being shown in some large exhibitions like the 1977 Documenta, work like mine back then was outside the gallery system. But the shift has changed things and my early work has been absorbed into the art world as part of the history of video and installation. But I'd want to note that there is still a separate avant-garde film community, and it's one that maintains an uneasy relationship to the moving image culture within the art world.
TC: Is there a preferred context? When Line Describing a Cone was installed at the Whitney [for Into the Light: The Projected Image in American Art 1964-1977, 2000-1], I believe it was the first time the work was installed for such an extended duration.
AM: It was certainly the first time that I had shown Line Describing a Cone as an installation. However, the idea of installation wasn't in itself foreign to me. In the '70s, three of my films were deliberately structured and thought of as extended duration pieces that occupied the space continuously. For instance, Long Film for Four Projectors , Four Projected Movements  and Long Film for Ambient Light . It was during this period that I first developed the idea of the "cycle" -- the cycle being a kind of continuous "tidal" structure that ebbed and flowed.
TC: Even as early as some of the Fire Cycles [1973-4], it seemed like you were experimenting with extended durations. Some of these works were 12 or 13 hours long.
AM: That's right, which in a way was my testing out the ideas that would then be incorporated into Long Film for Four Projectors. And when Chrissie Iles proposed showing Line Describing a Cone at the Whitney, she was quite open as to how we might show it. She said, "Look, we can show it at certain specific times, but what if we were to show it continuously?" I was quite resistant at first to the idea of looping it, because I had felt that Line Describing a Cone -- rather uniquely out of all of those films of mine -- had a very clear, simple, narrative structure: it declares its purpose and, by the end, realises it. But in the end that is what we did. The experience of the work as an installation is quite different from seeing it once though as part of an assembled audience. But I came to appreciate the improved access to the public and also to realise that there were now two viable ways to present the same piece. It wasn't a question of one or the other.
TC: And when you first exhibited it in the '70s, what was the normal context or duration?
AM: In the '70s it was normally shown to an assembled audience, typically in the evening. The audience would assemble, the projector would be organized, the room would be made dark and the film would be shown once. Everything was rather improvised.
TC: Were these theatre-based contexts?
AM: No. From the start the films were intended to be shown in empty spaces, without a projection room, a screen or rows of seats. Just a large empty space.
TC: You've talked about these seven works from '73 - '75 as a series. Did you know, going in, that there was a specific number you wanted to make?
AM: No, I didn't know in advance. I pretty much followed my nose when I was working, but after making Long Film for Ambient Light, I did feel that I had completed a body of work. Aesthetically, I had also put myself into a bit of a corner; the strategies of deconstruction and reduction sometimes take you to places where you have little room to manoeuvre. I knew that I was doing it with Long Film for Ambient Light. But it was also the right time for me to pause, and I began working collaboratively for a few years. I did assume that I would return to this particular form again, but one of the things that had become insurmountable was the problem of visibility. When the films were shown in downtown lofts and rough warehouse spaces, the films were visible essentially because the spaces were full of dust. And of course, people smoked. But once they got to museums or kunsthalles or biennials, visibility became a major problem. And I tried various things -- I experimented with charcoal and incense, for example -- but they were all very unsatisfactory. So I had thwarted myself in some way: I knew that I had created a form that suited me; yet I didn't see how I could get around this fundamental issue of visibility. Later, during the '90s, the first off-the-shelf fog machines were becoming available, which removed the problem entirely. This made a return possible, and a few years later, I did in fact, begin again.
TC: Beyond the practical reasons for why you stopped the solid-light series at that point, it strikes me that Long Film for Ambient Light is a very appropriate -- if temporary -- conclusion, insofar as the work isn't reliant on the presence of particulate matter or a projector. In a sense, you were able to produce something that didn't entail any of the units of projection, and yet fell in suit with the agenda of the rest of the solid-light films.
AM: I think that's right. Aesthetically, it was a time of distilling, of rendering down, and I was certainly always searching for the ultimate film, one that would be nothing but itself. Long Film for Ambient Light was continuous with the earlier 16mm pieces: it existed in the present tense, the projected event unfolded within the space that it shared with the audience, and it was based on light within a durational structure. All it had shed was the machinery and the optics of a film projector. At the time, despite the fact that I had obviously backed into three-dimensional and therefore "sculptural" space, I understood these ideas essentially in relation to "cinema". But over this past six years, I've become more consciously interested in the way that the cinematic and the sculptural can inform one another. I'm interested in the question of whether or not I'm practising sculpture, and indeed what a sculptural practice means within an era of information and virtuality.
TC: When you say that you now approach the current solid-light films, which you're making digitally, with an eye towards their sculptural dimension, how is that manifested?
AM: Well in the '70s, I was working with sets of ideas about duration, the creation of "an audience", the apparatus of projection and exhibition, temporal structure, and so on. The approach to form and to medium was straightforward and materialist. The approach and the titles of the works reflected this: Line Describing a Cone, Four Projected Movements, and so on: simple and descriptive, and very much a part of the temper of the time. I've brought some of this approach forward into the present and I still have a central interest in duration as central problem, but whereas for me in the '70s these ideas were connected to aesthetics, now they seem more connected to mortality and the body. If you start thinking about representing the body and you are working in three-dimensional space, you are, whether you like it or not, connected to an ancient sculptural problematic. Obviously, I'm not trying to make pictures or models of bodies, but when you work with certain kinds of motion, or you compose in pairs, or you structure your time in cycles, you're already doing something that suggests the corporeal. In You and I, Horizontal (III) , the large installation at the Serpentine, there's a moment when the oval suddenly and rapidly expands; colleagues have sometimes referred to this moment as a sort of a "swoon".
TC: I was also going to bring up that moment in You and I, Horizontal (III) when the oval expanded. In the main room of the Serpentine, there was a diagram of the stages of the wipe that occurs in the film, so walking into the film, I had a basic idea of the structural premise. There's a uniform pace to the film, which is also true of some of your other works: speed is slow and constant, as if giving an assurance to visitors that they can move through the space. But what was interesting about this film was that there wasn't any structural prediction of that rapid movement, so the surprise of the speed shift made it corporeal and affective in a way that didn't seem to have to do with pattern or math. It made a demand that no one expected.
AM: Essentially what's going on with motion of the elliptical forms in all of these recent films -- in particular Breath  and the You and I series -- is the idea of breathing, which is to say the expansion and contraction of a volume. And what I'd always done, up to You and I, Horizontal (III), was to make the expansion and the contraction mirror one another, so that the extent of the change of volume and the speed of the change would be equal for both the "inhale" and the "exhale"; it would be very measured and often extremely slow. But with You and I, Horizontal (III), I threw this out-of-kilter; the volume displaced or replaced remained the same, but the speed of contraction was radically different from the speed of expansion. Starting with a tall open, elliptical conical form that could easily contain your whole height, I made it very, very, very slowly contract -- vertically -- until the form had closed down to the point where it was only able to absorb your head and shoulders. There is a period where it rests. Then the form suddenly and rapidly expands, returning in ten seconds to its original full height. It's very surprising. I had never done that before.
TC: I think it's fascinating. It's the thing that stayed with me most after leaving the Serpentine. Certain of your '70s films like Four Projected Movements and Long Film for Four Projectors had variable speeds, but the shifts were entirely calculated -- and the films, if anything, were about structurally assessing the permutations of speed.
AM: They were systematic. Brandon [Joseph] described the experience of Long Film for Four Projectors as "being in a whirlpool" -- the whole thing is moving like crazy. But the reason you can quietly look at it is that the motion operates within consistent boundaries; there are pockets of quiet through which the blades of light never pass; and the pattern of motion is predictable. And then, every 35 minutes, the installation pauses so that the reels can be re-threaded on the projectors.
TC: I also wanted to ask about the other new film at the Serpentine, Turning Under , which I believe has the structure of two travelling waves.
AM: Actually one travelling wave and one flat plane. The wave passes through the flat plane as they both turn through 90 degrees. The forms begin vertically and end horizontally. In a way, this film has an A-to-Z structure [like Line Describing a Cone].
TC: It does, but there's something about the nature of the travelling wave that also resists being read as a pattern.
AM: I think that this film is rather unlike all the other new works because the undulating motion is the most noticeable sensory event. The complexity comes from the interference that one form performs on the other as one passes through the other during their mutual fall to the ground. The undulation is very sensual, very figural, and you can only really experience it spatially as you stand within it. If you look at the [projected image] on the wall, it's pretty, but it doesn't do anything more than anchor the three-dimensional object.
TC: But unlike You and I, Horizontal (III), there was something about Turning Under that made me feel like I needed to continue to refer to the projected image while experiencing the projection. I knew there was a discernible structure to the film, but somehow I couldn't discern it. So that experience was actually one of great anxiety, because I felt like I was caught in something that was both affective and withholding.
AM: Yes, it's the question of, where is the work? Is the work on the wall? Is the work in space? Am I the work? Because you can't get a complete sense of the thing from any one of those places, and of course the work is in a state of motion -- it is hard to pin it down, or to hold it in the mind as fully understood. And in the case of You and I, Horizontal (III), which is a double projection, the drawing itself up on one of the walls is enormous. It's panoramic. You have the problem with that work -- which is unique to the double-projector installations -- that if you're in one of the more-or-less conical forms, you don't know what's going on in the other. And you can try to grasp that by turning round and staring at the drawing, but then there is one single continuous drawing whereas there are two conical forms in space, so then you can't be sure. The question of "what or where is the object?" is very difficult to answer. By being absorbed into one of the projected forms you are also surrounded. There must be some element of both pleasure and anxiety in this kind of engagement.
TC: Additionally, the types of forms you're dealing with in your digital films are becoming so complicated that they make different demands of a viewer than those of your earlier works. The travelling wave, for instance, is not something that you dealt with in the '70s. Oddly enough, after going through these two newer projections at Serpentine, I entered the room with Line Describing a Cone and felt a comfort in knowing that I could readily apprehend the structure of that work.
AM: That's an important observation. It's not only that you can apprehend it; it's that you can remember it, and then you don't have to look at it any more. With Line Describing a Cone, once you've understood the principle that the line on the wall is slowly describing a circle, and that the circle on the wall is slowly creating a cone is space, you "know" what will ultimately happen so you can then simply enjoy and explore the coming-into-being of the volumetric form. With the works that I've made since I've started working again, the forms are more irregular and they interfere with each other in a more complex way; you may not quite grasp the rules of transformation and even if you do, the forms being generated by them will be too irregular to commit to memory. So unlike Line Describing a Cone, you will probably feel the need to repeatedly refer back to the drawing. So there's a more equal relationship between the volumetric form and the drawing than there was in the '70s.
TC: I think having those two new films in rooms adjacent to Line Describing a Cone really did make that point quite emphatically.
AM: And also, how hand-made Line Describing a Cone looks to me now, by comparison to the digitally produced pieces! The line-thickness is uneven; the image shakes a little bit. There are tiny scratches which project like shooting stars.
TC: So You and I, Horizontal (III) is the third in a series?
AM: Yes. It began with the vertically oriented, two-projector installation, You and I. Then I made Between You and I . I began to refer to the vertical pieces as "standing figures". But if they were standing figures, then what were all the horizontal ones? I decided that they must be "recumbent". So I followed this thought up by making You and I, Horizontal (I), followed by another single-projector work, You and I, Horizontal (II). Then I decided to make a two-projector horizontal installation, which became You and I, Horizontal (III). Every time I make one of these, there are new developments.
TC: It's interesting how, in the same series, you've taken certain pattern progressions and certain movements like the wipe and then flipped them to a horizontal orientation. If the vertical and horizontal films were ever shown in the same environment, the differences would be striking.
AM: They would be very striking. Thirty feet across a room is a normal distance, but 30 feet into the air is an unusual dimension relative to your own standing body. It's towering above your head.
TC: The vertical films are really the first cases where the spectator's distance from the projector is predetermined.
AM: Yes. And you can't get in the way of the object in the same way you can in the horizontal films, where you can block it.
TC: There's also the idea that the spectator and projected image are compressed, and that one is always standing on the projected image if one is standing within the projected light.
AM: For a couple of years now, I've referred to the projected lines as the "footprint" in order to point out that the real body is in space: you have the footprint on the wall, and the body in space. With the vertical ones, that's become quite literal. You're walking on the footprint.
TC: And the titles, like Between You and I, reinforce the idea of two figures in communication.
AM: In some kind of dialogue. Our whole experience of our corporeal selves is in relation to others. So representation sort of got it wrong, because it thinks the body is an object, which it isn't. Cybernetically speaking, you have a circuit of communication, the bodies being two nodes within the circuit.
TC: The new works in the Serpentine were digitally projected?
AM: They were. Everything this time around is done with digital projectors. The works are made to be shown that way -- I don't work on film now.
TC: But you could transfer to film.
AM: Yes, and I once did. The first film that I made entirely digitally was Doubling Back , the first work I completed after my return. But afterwards I made a transfer onto 16mm film and at its first showing, which was at the Whitney 2004 Biennial, it was shown as a film. But the absurdity of that began to be clear when I reflected that the transfer costs were about $6,000. With $6,000, I could make six works if I wasn't using film, so I thought, how bad can digital projection really be? A lot of the digital projectors I had used before were LCD ones, which have a very poor black, so you didn't have the clarity of form that you have with film. But then a new kind of digital projector was invented around this time called the DLP projector, where the black value was almost as good as film, and that's what I now use.
TC: Given the rarity of 16mm projectors in this day and age, it also seems like an actual film projector might have been more of a distraction than an asset.
AM: That is quite true. 16mm projectors have become exotic. You might as well be looking at a piece of archaeology, or a dinosaur. People pay too much attention to them. The point about 16mm projectors in the '70s was that they were so familiar. And digital projectors are like that now. There are some artists (Tacita Dean, for instance) who are militant about the disappearance of the film medium and film projection, and I do understand that. But for me, those aren't issues, and I like to use whatever medium is the simplest and most obvious.
TC: Particularly given how much your recent animations owe to virtuality, something about the absent-but-present sound of the digital projector is a very important element in viewing the works.
AM: I was worried about the loss of the sound of the projector. It was another reason why for a while I thought that the film projector had something over digital. The film projector itself produced what I call a sub-audible soundtrack: it's a whirring sound that you barely notice until it's not on, and then you realize how quiet it is. The whirring sound creates a subtle but continuous presence which envelops the space, and it provides privacy because it masks quiet conversation. But I've come to recognize that in fact when you're focused, your own mind has a murmur to it, which functions very much like the sound of the projector. It creates a cover for your own concentration.
TC: There's a quote from when John Cage was once in an anechoic chamber...
AM: Yes, he asked about the roaring noise. "Mr. Cage, you are hearing your own blood." Wonderful story.
TC: For me, the activation of the body in your exhibitions is entirely multi-sensory, so all of the sounds and tics and murmurs, as you put it, are fore-grounded.
AM: It's apt you should mention Cage. I was stimulated in the early '70s by his writing and performances. One of his ideas was that "everyone is in the best seat" which contains, firstly, the idea of the spectator as a de-centralized independent being, and secondly, the idea that everything within a given moment can be listened to or seen as significant.
TC: Can you tell me what you're working on at the moment?
AM: The film I'm working on right now, which is called Leaving, has a narrative structure very similar to Line Describing a Cone, but in reverse, so you begin with everything and end with nothing. But unlike Line Describing a Cone, there is a structure of exchange whereby the gradual loss of the visual object is balanced by the gradual addition of a three-dimensional sonic field based on foghorns.
TC: I'm interested in the role sound has played in your practice, and in how it enacts a mapping similar to the light works. For White Noise Installation , which you never realized, you proposed having two sounds just above and below the range of apprehensible sound, played from speakers at opposite ends of the room at so great an intensity that, while they couldn't be heard, they were physically manifest. And with the Landscape for Fire series, the foghorn itself became a mode of mapping space.
AM: Yes, the presence of foghorns in my outdoor Landscape for Fire and Fire Cycle performances extended the performance space by a quarter of a mile in every direction. In Leaving, the act of exchange between something you can see and something you can't, and the use of the foghorns within a mist-filled space -- the suggestion of ocean or river, if you like, as well as the suggestion of vast space in every direction -- sets up various kinds of poetic resonances within the black box.
TC: Also, just as the two projectors in certain works from the Between You and I series function on a relational level that might imply social exchange, the foghorn, as a practical tool, implies two bodies and a mode of communication.
AM: And what's so interesting about the foghorn, from a sculptural point-of-view, is that it's all about pinpointing a space. It also signifies two things: safety and danger.
TC: So how will the foghorns be installed [in Leaving]?
AM: The foghorn sounds themselves are constructed from a combination of field recordings and synthetic re-building. Each foghorn is spatially located within a 360-degree space which will be represented by a five-speaker installation. The speakers will form an approximate circle on the perimeter of a large space. You will barely hear the foghorns to start with, and they will appear, as it were, from a distance, then very gradually they'll converge on the projection space, so by the time the visual form has vanished, the foghorns at all five pitches, each at maximum amplitude, will be present in the room.
TC: Very interesting. And when will the piece be realized?
AM: I hope that I'll have it completed by the spring, but the math for the visual part of it has been quite complex and it may actually take a little longer. I also have a new version of You and I, Horizontal in the wings. I've been working on the assumption of the absolute value of slowness in relation to sculptural behaviour. The projected object has to move slowly or predictably, so that the spectator is confident enough to move freely around it. But I've been holding to that position through enough pieces that I want to throw myself a curveball. I think that Swoon was the beginning of this. The newest version of You and I Horizontal will have the subtitle, Fever, and will explore faster and more demented motions.
TC: I read there's a new project involving a bridge or a tunnel.
AM: Yes. That's the other thing that's happened in the past year: I've developed an interest in off-site projects that involve light and duration and space, but not projected light. One of them, Crossing the Hudson, is a proposal for a deserted railroad bridge that spans the Hudson 75 miles north of Manhattan, at a point where the river is 800 metres across. It was originally built for carrying coal from Pennsylvania to New England in the 1870s. Since 1971, it has been disused, but it's about to be converted into a pedestrian walkway. The piece consists of a 365-day lighting of the bridge, starting from one bank and moving slowly and systematically across to the other bank at a speed of about two metres a night. On the first day of the following year, it begins again. The repeating cycle turns the bridge into a kind of perpetual calendar.
TC: How will the bridge be lit?
AM: The struts of the structure will be lined with strings of LED light-nodes. LED lights can be connected to a single controlling computer, so it's possible to set up a very precise durational structure. Structurally at least, Crossing the Hudson has some resemblances to Line Describing a Cone. But this would be a large-scale public project, which would ideally exist indefinitely. The bridge would always be in a partial state of coming-into-being. The other project is a proposal for the High Line, a disused elevated railway track in downtown Manhattan, which in a year or so will become a public recreational space. The High Line runs close to the Hudson and at one time was connected to the traffic of New York Harbour. It includes a 60-metre-long tunnel that passes clean through a building that runs from 15th to 16th Street. The proposed installation would occupy the entire tunnel. The tunnel's side walls would be lined with vertical strings of LED nodes, so that each of the walls would become a kind of giant screen. On each screen you would see a horizontal line of lights which would resemble a row of airport landing lights, running from one end of the tunnel to the other. It would look very much like one of my fire pieces; it wouldn't be a straight line, but a set of points that connect to suggest a straight line. And each row of lights would be in constant motion -- slow, very slow motion -- moving in parallel to one another, rising and falling and changing in angle. The motion would be reminiscent of the pitching and rolling of a ship at sea.
TC: It's nice that with these off-site projects, you've developed things that feed into the history and lore of the spaces, without failing to produce something that feels very much your own.
AM: It's an extension. The motion comes straight out of the films, but the technology doesn't. I'm realistic about public projects, though -- compared to studio projects, they may need years to realize.
TC: I imagine, having left art for a series of decades to do other things, you have a sense of patience that many artists might not.
AM: Oh, I don't know. Given that I spent 20 years doing other things, I think I'm in a hurry. I'm having a good time and I know that one's not always on a roll. But I am feeling very productive at the moment.
Tyler Coburn is an artist and critic based in New York.
Image © Anthony McCall
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