'Into the Light: The Projected Image in American Art 1964-77' was an unabashedly intellectual exhibition which rose above the Whitney's recent crowd-pleasers and made few concessions to the impatient or claustrophobic. It was a gutsy attempt by the museum's curator of film and video, Chrissie Iles, to make newly visible a critical period in the development of a now commonplace form by bringing together a clutch of rarely seen projections from the medium's early years. Viewers were rewarded with moments of rare, if raw, beauty, proving that this was more than just an exercise in unearthing roots.
Iles locates her area of interest as 'between white cube and black box' - the point at which the concerns of the cinema began to overlap with those of the gallery. It is surely no accident that this handy phrase recalls descriptions of late Minimalist sculpture, the particular concerns of which were no less important to the pioneers of projection. Both strived to activate the viewer's environment by giving equal status to the image and the apparatus employed to produce it, the act of observing and the thing observed. The very word 'projection' also became double-edged, used increasingly to refer not only to the use of a particular technology but also to the investigation of self-hood - the 'projection' of identity.
While the art-historical coherence of 'Into the Light' may have been flawed - there were too many one-offs and omissions for a full and balanced account of the period to emerge - it did present an absorbing profile of the process of experimentation itself, coloured by the shifting sensibilities of the time and place. That the exhibition had an undertow of violence cannot be attributed entirely to the rough-cut nature of the work. From the most pared-down - Paul Sharits' Shutter Interface (1975), in which a band of coloured rectangles alternate, overlap and flicker to a harsh, percussive soundtrack - to the most complex - Vito Acconci's Other Voices for a Second Sight (1974), a three-room installation combining speech with lighting effects, architectural elements and photographic collage in an extended meditation on the experience of war and revolution - many of the works were marked by the shadows of Vietnam and by the turmoil of reassessment and change.
In the only room in which several works were shown together, Yoko Ono's blandly optimistic Sky TV (1966), a live video image of the sky above the museum relayed to a television monitor, met William Anastasi's bleaker, but funnier, Free Will (1968). In a sarcastic execration of the delusions and dead ends with which both culture and counter-culture were infested, Free Will proved an ironic title, its camera trained on a featureless corner of the room. Completing a neat trio was Gary Hill's Hole in the Wall (1974). Marking a critical move in Hill's practice from sculpture to video by way of installation, this work also includes an element of performance and relies for its punch on a satisfyingly circular structural logic. Unseen since its initial presentation at the Woodstock Artists' Association in 1974, it consists of a rough portal carved out of the gallery wall, into which is unceremoniously stuffed a monitor showing a film of the hole being cut. By combining the most physical and most ephemeral of media, Hill marks out two extremes and takes a useful step forward between them.
In their relentless assault on the senses both Bruce Nauman and Dennis Oppenheim have used multi-screen projections to create abrasively forbidding environments suggestive of torture, although Oppenheim's Echo (1973) has been his only foray in the field to date. It consists of four black and white projections of the artist's hand slapping the gallery wall; the projections surround the viewer as the hard sound reverberates like prison doors slamming shut. Nauman's Spinning Spheres (1970) uses a similar format, but replaces the hands with reflective steel balls, each rotating at speed on a glass plate in a white room, and filmed close-up to eliminate exterior references. In both cases the viewer's perceptions are teased and tested - there is no right place to stand, no 'This Way Up' arrow, no let up in the imagistic flow. The use of echo in particular communicates dissatisfaction with the limits of the architecture (both literal and conceptual) of late Modernism.
Simone Forti's Striding Crawling (1977) and Anthony McCall's Line Describing a Cone (1973) are more quietly confrontational, their highly individual formats resulting in the exhibition's two most unequivocally pleasurable experiences. Forti's work is one of the precious few examples of serious art made using holography. Perched on three house bricks is a clear Perspex cylinder, lit from beneath by a candle. By walking around it and peering in at the correct angle it is possible to discern the spectral figure of the artist (who also used to be a dancer) going through the eponymous motions. Remember Princess Leia's first appearance in Star Wars (1977) as a flickering TV-blue image hovering in space, tantalizingly insubstantial? Striding Crawling mixes high with extremely low technologies and achieves a comparably evocative result.
Line Describing a Cone is reminiscent of Richard Wilson's 20:50 (1987) in that it is difficult at first to be sure exactly what, if anything, one is seeing. In a dark room filled with fine smoke, a film projector stands across from a screen. Over the course of half an hour we can watch a white circle steadily drawn and erased, but it is in the space between apparatus and support that the work really happens. The mist makes the light visible in transit, not merely as it meets a surface, and creates the airborne impression of a hollow geometrical form with the lens at its apex. Both Line Describing a Cone and Striding Crawling encourage all manner of eccentric-looking audience participation, and both pull off the seemingly impossible by allowing illusion to retain its power while simultaneously revealing its source. It is the triumph of 'Into the Light' that one might apply the same endorsement to the exhibition as a whole.