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Annabel Nicolson
The Art of Light and Shadow

North London 1973, a Victorian dairy, a former industrial space designed to be cold, now housing artists' studios. Up a worn stone staircase to the third floor, a door gives onto a dimly-lit hall, the cinema space of the London Film-Makers' Co-op.

The audience is gathered, standing and sitting to the sides and behind a woman seated at a small table bearing a Singer sewing machine. In front are two screens, one at an angle; behind is a film projector. Light glints off a long strip of film which is strung in a loop from the ceiling, descending to the sewing-machine table and back to the projector. House lights dim and the show starts.

From one side a second projector starts running, throwing a silhouette onto the angled screen: a life-size shadowgraph of the woman as she begins to operate the sewing machine. As the first projector starts an image appears in front: the black and white picture is of the same woman operating the sewing machine.

The room is full of noise: the steady whirring of the projectors, the clacking and clicking of the filmstrip as it passes over pulleys and through the projector, the hum of the sewing machine as the woman turns the handle, intent on her sewing… she's sewing the filmstrip! Carefully she manoeuvres the loop of film so that it passes beneath the machine's needle before passing back to the projector. There's no thread but the perforation of the film's surface soon becomes evident, as tears and holes of leaking light begin to appear in the onscreen image. This continues; the film getting more and more damaged as it continues its perilous journey, sometimes spilling, gathering dust and scratches, slithering along the floor, spectators picking it up and passing it along. Intermittently the image blurs as the film clatters and slips in the gate until it snaps altogether.

In the lull, while the projectionist mends the break, one can discern the voices of two audience-members as they read occasionally throughout the performance from separate instruction manuals: 'how to thread a sewing machine' and 'how to thread a film projector'.

Once repaired the film starts again, but the pauses become more frequent as the brittle filmstrip deteriorates, needing further splices. The screen image becomes all-but-obliterated by light, unlike the real-time moving shadowgraph which remains constant. The performance ends with the film's destruction, when the projectionist announces that it can no longer pass through the projector. The house-lights come on.

Documentation of Reel Time by Annabel Nicolson, 1971
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