in Interviews | 06 MAY 06
Featured in
Issue 99

Light Years

An interview with Anthony McCall, an artist who, since his seminal 1973 film Line Describing a Cone, has explored the physical and sculptural qualities of film

in Interviews | 06 MAY 06

Mark Godfrey: How did you come to make the ‘Solid Light’ films?

Anthony McCall: In 1971 I embarked on a series of landscape performances that worked with shifting configurations of small fires within a rectilinear grid. One of my first films, Landscape for Fire (1972), was based on one of these. Editing the film, I found the process of how you decide which shots to use and how long a shot should last to be quite arbitrary, and my attention began to shift from what happened in front of the camera to what happened at the moment of projection. Meanwhile I had become aware of the films of Andy Warhol and Michael Snow, both of whom interested me because of the way in which they appeared to successfully use a single idea to generate an entire film. The idea of creating a film from a single idea led to Line Describing a Cone (1973).

MG Did you see Warhol’s and Snow’s work in London?

AM At that time I had only heard about them and read descriptions of Warhol’s Empire (1964) and Snow’s Wavelength (1967) in books like David Curtis’ Experimental Cinema (1971). When I did see them, years later, I was surprised at how different they were from how I had imagined them.

MG In what way?

AM I had imagined that Wavelength was a film of great conceptual purity, in which a single zoom that lasts for 45 minutes moves from a wide shot to a close-up. When I saw it, I was taken aback by how much was going on: there were actors, even an apparent murder.

MG I wanted to ask you about the difference between reading about Line Describing a Cone and seeing it. The film is a 30-minute projection in which a dot extends into a curve as if it were being drawn over time, and eventually becomes a full circle. You see this on the screen, but in the space between the screen and the projector you can see a growing cone of light, especially when the room is filled with haze. You wrote a text about it in 1974 in which you said that the film ‘deals with the projected light beam itself’, that it ‘refers to nothing beyond [the] real time’ of the projection and that it ‘contains no illusion’. I imagined a very dry work, in the same way that reading about Snow and Warhol you had imagined pure works. Yet when I saw Line at the Whitney Museum in Chrissie Iles’ show ‘Into the Light’, I was very taken by the magical spectacle of it and also by the way it is incredibly participatory. Since that time, I’ve seen the Michael Jackson video Rock With You from 1980. Jackson appears before a cone of light and the effect of the cone of light in the video isn’t as far as one would think from the effect of the cone in your work. So the fantastical features of Line seem to be at odds with the spirit of your 1973 statement.

AM I hadn’t seen this Jackson video before! The smoky form behind him does indeed bear an uncanny resemblance to photographs of Line Describing a Cone, but not to the experience of a spectator being there, inside a three-dimensional projected object, walking around it. Yet I know from comments I have heard from those who saw the film for the first time after hearing about it or seeing such photographs, that they were still unprepared for the actual experience of it. In my own early statement I only talked about the ideas that led to the piece. I think that I still do that. But I am far from indifferent to how the pieces act, and in fact I am often bemused by the fact that critics writing about the films will sometimes barely mention what they have experienced while looking.

MG It was first shown at a moment now associated with critical 1970s’ art: the major projects of Hans Haacke, Daniel Buren, the end of painting, the critique of the institution. The idea of stripping film of narrative and illusion makes perfect sense in this context, for those were critical aims as well. But re-viewing the work now, Line might instead seem a starting-point for some contemporary practices that fuse the critical and the spectacular and which manage to provide playful experiences that aren’t just simplistic, enjoyable ones. Do you think that people see it in different ways nowadays, and is that because it is shown in different contexts from those in which it was shown in the 1970s?

AM I certainly like the idea that there is always a simple way to enjoy something, whatever else may be going on. But certainly there are more varied audiences now than there were in the 1970s. A year or so ago the Centre Pompidou organized a retrospective of my films at La Maison Rouge in Paris. My 1974 six-hour installation Long Film for Four Projectors was shown on Nuit Blanche (White Night, when cultural Paris spends half the night travelling from event to event), and it attracted a large audience. I personally think Long Film is quite demanding. It is a large-scale installation based on a ceaselessly moving field of intersecting planes of light: there is no stable object to be grasped, nor is there any single vantage point from which one can gain a sense of the whole. At around 3 am on this particular night an audience of 60 or 70 people, mostly in their 20s or 30s, were existing in it together – rather than looking at it – with a comfort level I hadn’t seen before. A young curator I know suggested that his age group had grown up going to raves, and this was a familiar type of environment.

MG You make a distinction between ‘existing in’ and ‘looking at’ the work. If you just exist in the work and consume it as a spectacular light show, as you would at a nightclub, as a viewer are you failing the work?

AM Long Film for Four Projectors was made at a moment when cinema seemed monolithic and practices like mine were, to some degree, oppositional. But cinema as an institution has now morphed into many different forms, with variants and hybrids involving PCs, DVD players and, within the art world, installation and video. The Nuit Blanche showing was an all-night cultural festival, so although I was surprised at the time, I’m comfortable with the way it played out. In the same 12-month period Long Film was also shown at Tate Britain, where the visitors seemed quite heterogeneous and where the original context for the work was carefully presented. In addition to the installation itself there was a display of drawings and a concurrent talk and public discussion, and Gordon Matta-Clark’s Conical Intersect (1975) film was shown in the adjacent space.

MG Line Describing a Cone is said to have influenced Conical Intersect. Matta-Clark destroyed walls to make it. How did you conceive the relationship of your films to the architectural container in which they were shown? Did some films construct sheets of light like temporary walls that would have different kinds of powers over the viewer from solid walls?

AM The four ‘Cone’ films were simply projected across a room, and the spectator’s attention was focused on the projected form in mid-air. The walls, floor and ceiling would more or less disappear. However, Long Film for Four Projectors and Four Projected Movements (1975) extended their reach to explicitly include the walls and the floor of the spaces within which they were projected. For Four Projected Movements, for instance, the (single) 16 mm projector was placed on the floor in a corner of the space. It projected its flat, triangular blade of light closely along one wall and then onto the far wall, so that the edges of the frame were only inches from the floor and inches from that same wall. There were four 15-minute movements, each a sweep of the blade of light through 90 degrees. Because they were so closely calibrated to the planes of the adjacent wall and floor, these movements also acted on the bodies of those watching, especially those who had incorporated themselves within the field of projection.

MG So those sheets of light did have an illusory quality, actually pushing people?

AM Yes. In the dark room the projected sheet of light was the most visible and the most active event in the space, but it always moved in relation to the wall and the floor and even created a kind of slanting ceiling. If you allowed your body to be influenced by the direction of its movement, you could move with it, which might mean moving closer to the solid wall as it closed in on it or moving away as it pulled away from the wall, and so on. Or you could stand firm and allow the plane of light to pass through you or lie beneath it. I revisited the idea of working closely against the wall and floor in 2003 with Doubling Back. Here, though, the flat planes of the wall and floor act in counterpoint to the slow motion of projected curvilinear forms.

MG What motivated the return to making the ‘Solid Light’ films after 20 years?

AM I rediscovered my interest in movement and three-dimensional form while working with Virtual Reality Modelling Language (VRML) in 1997. This, of course, was work in virtual space, but it gradually led me back to my ‘Solid Light’ films and I began to think about them again. Chrissie Iles took up her curatorship at the Whitney soon after this, and we met up to discuss my work from the 1970s. That process of looking and talking was enormously important to me in stirring things up, and certainly the interest shown at the public showings of Line Describing a Cone at the Whitney in 2000 and in 2001 was unexpected and encouraging. But what made a return actually possible was that by the 1990s I had found a solution to the problem of the visibility of these films. I had considered revisiting the form at earlier moments but had ruled it out because the films had become impossible to show. Originally they were projected in ex-industrial downtown loft spaces that were rough and ready, and of course smoking in such spaces was accepted and perfectly normal. It was the particles in the air from dust or from cigarette smoke that gave these films their visibility! But later, smoking was banned, and the public spaces were clean and free of dust. The films became more or less invisible. At some point in the early 1990s the hazer was invented. A hazer can fill large spaces with a non-toxic, odourless mist that renders the projected light perfectly visible; my barrier to making new pieces vanished.

MG Are there differences between the way you made pieces then and the way you make them now?

AM The old films were made using very simple film animation, where I would begin with a white line drawn with gouache and ruling-pen on black paper and shoot it frame by frame on an animation camera. Now they’re done with algorithms and scripting in a computer.

MG When you draw a white line on a dark ground, you pre-echo the way the film-frame will block all the projector’s light except for that line. Each newly drawn minuscule length of the line corresponds with each new frame of the film. Do you think that by producing the new films digitally you lose some of their medium-reflexivity?

AM It is true that film allows a direct relationship between the drawn line, the line on the film frame and the line projected on the screen. A digital image, by contrast, is generated by arithmetic. But for me, despite that, the process of working with a computer makes production more like the direct act of drawing than it did in the past. When you draw you make marks, and then you look at what you’ve done, and if you are not satisfied you change it. And you can go on like that, erasing, altering, adding, subtracting etc. until you are satisfied. With conventional film animation you had to guess what you wanted in advance, and then, shooting painstakingly frame by frame, you executed the animation in minute detail. But you were flying blind, and only after the completion of the whole process did you find out if your guesswork was correct. With computer animation you can project what you are doing at any moment and then make changes accordingly. So for me working digitally is, in fact, more like drawing, more reflexive, than it used to be.

MG Do you prefer now to show them with film projectors or DVD projectors?

AM I do like film projection. The black of high-contrast film is very dense, and the white lines are sharp and clean. I love the whirring sound. But the new DLP digital projectors can produce black backgrounds that are getting pretty black, and the white lines, despite the presence of visible pixels, are extremely bright. But digital projection also has another important advantage, which is that it is familiar-looking – 16 mm projectors used to be like that, but now they are becoming obsolete they have become exotic and therefore noticeable.

MG A fact that a number of artists exploit, of course.

AM They do. But for me personally it isn’t a particularly engaging issue.

MG How are you determining forms such as the wave in your new works?

AM Perhaps the most important thing about the wave for me is that it is travelling; and that this motion is continuous and repetitive. The form first came to my attention when I was swimming in the Caribbean in the late 1980s. Wearing a face mask and looking down through 30 feet of crystal-clear water, I caught sight of a large ray, gliding unhurriedly across my field of view. I was mesmerized. The continuous, rippling, liquid undulations of its wings, each of which described a travelling wave, represented the most graceful motion I’d ever seen, and I never forgot it. When I began working again on films, the first drawings and tests that I did involved this form of repetitive, liquid motion. Then I made Doubling Back (2003), which was based on a pair of travelling waves that passed slowly through one another at 90 degrees to one another, creating a single form with slowly shifting interior chambers; and Turning Under, made the following year, took the 90-degree straight-line rotation of Four Projected Movements (1975) and added a travelling wave that passed right through it as it turned.

MG These combinations of straight lines and waves also recall
Richard Serra’s sculpture since the late 1990s.

AM That’s true. I admire his sculpture, and I dare say those serpentine forms of his must also have made an impression on me.

MG Can you say something about your exhibition at Peer Gallery in London?

AM The title of the piece is Between You and I (2006). It is something of a departure from earlier solid light installations in that I have changed the orientation from horizontal to vertical. It consists of two 11-metre-tall standing forms. The projection direction is downwards, from ceiling to floor. The piece is built from two independent sculptural events. One of them is a complete hollow cone with an elliptical base whose sides gradually expand or contract; the other is a wave that slowly travels through a flat rotating plane. At the start of a cycle you see these two events side by side and quite independent of one another. However, over the duration of a 15-minute cycle each is invaded by the other form until it is replaced by it. Cinematically this is a type of ‘parallel action’, which enables two storylines to be kept in play; but instead of keeping them connected by cutting back and forth, they are connected by a rather outmoded cinematic transition called a ‘wipe’. In its classic use this is a transition of a second or two, where the moving image on the screen is gradually covered over by a second, invading, moving image. But in Between You and I the transition between the conical form and the travelling wave-form takes 15 minutes. The result is that for most of the time each of the two projected forms is a fusion of these two basic sculptural events, in shifting proportions. In one, the conical form is replaced by the travelling wave while in the other the same exchange occurs in reverse.

MG You are showing the work in the Round Chapel, a deconsecrated space, and essentially the viewer will see waves of light coming from the above and hitting the floor. Although I see your work within the history of avant-garde filmmaking and art practice, and in completely secular terms, clearly in a church rays of light falling from high windows to the floor hold a type of memory. This leads me back to an earlier point about Line Describing a Cone. Some people have described seeing a tunnel of light in near-death experiences or spoken of the approach to heaven as like a tunnel of light. Do these religious workings of light in any way affect the way your works could be read?

AM The building could colour the experience, but I’m a bit sceptical about this. A church experience is made up of more than just architecture; it’s an all-encompassing mise en scène, involving altars, pews, ritual, vestments, texts, oration, music and so on.

MG Do these new pieces flirt with the sublime?

AM I don’t believe they do, or at least no more now than in earlier pieces. The effects you refer to are undoubtedly present, but somewhat beyond my control. I focus on rather specific things like the proportions of a wave or the pace at which it advances. And I am very interested by the possibility that these forms can begin to speak about the body.

Mark Godfrey teaches at The Slade School of Fine Art, University College London and is writing a book, Abstraction and the Holocaust, for Yale University Press.