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Anthony McCall

By Jonathan Walley

1. Artist and Filmmaker

Like many artists of the 1960s and 70s, Anthony McCall was drawn to film because it allowed him to document ephemeral performance work and extend his interest in time-based art and "art process" into a new domain.

Soon, however, he began to explore the possibilities of film itself, independent of the events he was using it to record. This interest in the nature of cinema distinguished him from scores of other artists who made films during the same period, and dovetailed with the aesthetic preoccupations of the avant-garde film world. He thus became part of the growing independent, experimental film culture whose approach to the medium was distinct in many ways from that of the gallery-based art world.

The differences between these two spheres of film art are suggested by a curious label that has often been used to describe McCall: "artist and filmmaker." Recent work on McCall has engaged the former more than the latter. Since the inclusion of his film Line Describing a Cone (1973) in the Whitney Museum's exhibition "Into the Light: The Projected Image in American Art, 1964-1977," his films have been the object of a new surge of critical attention from the art world. And his recent return to filmmaking after a thirty year absence has mainly occupied the gallery. Hence, current scholarship on his films emphasizes the broad art historical context in which they were made: the milieu of Minimalist and Conceptual Art, the expanded arts scene, and the art world's cinematic turn beginning in the 1960s.

The importance of this context for McCall's films is undeniable. But it becomes much more illuminating when focused "through the lens" of contemporaneous avant-garde film culture in Europe (especially England, where McCall lived until 1973) and the U.S. McCall's career as an "artist and filmmaker" reflects the complex interrelationship of the art world and the film world.

2. Early Film Work

In the early seventies, McCall incorporated film into live performances and used it to document a series of events he called "conditions" (distinguishing them from both objects and performances).

But the relationship between these events and the photographic records McCall made of them evolved, becoming interdependent - the pieces were designed for the camera, and the act of documentation was inscribed into their structures. The resulting films reflect on the nature of filmic representation, a line of inquiry that led McCall into territory then being explored by avant-garde filmmakers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Circulation Figures and Landscape for Fire (both 1972) document McCall's conditions and forecast the major concerns of his later, better known films. Both are tentative steps toward cinematic abstraction; Circulation Figures records a private event in which McCall and several artist friends wander about a large room taking still and moving pictures of the space, each other, and their picture taking. A large mirror stands in the center of the room, which, combined with disorienting framings, destabilizes the space and creates confusion as to what is real and what is reflected.

Landscape for Fire documents one of a series of open-air performances of the same name that McCall executed from 1971-74. Performers moved through a grid of gasoline pans, lighting and extinguishing them according to a score. Though the film was originally intended solely as documentation, McCall altered the footage through editing, organizing the performers' movements into formal patterns that either didn't exist in the performance or were rendered imperceptible by its expanded temporal and spatial scale. He created sudden reversals in the direction and orientation of people and actions in the frame by flipping shots left to right or top to bottom.
Interestingly, the film simultaneously calls to mind the early European avant-garde's preoccupation with the "orchestration of movement" (Hans Richter's phrase) and the contemporaneous "structural" filmmaker's quest to "orchestrate duration" (P. Adams Sitney's phrase). Indeed, McCall's experience editing Landscape for Fire likely suggested that a major dimension of cinema was the organization of time and movement. The movement here was that of a profilmic event, but thinking about this feature of film through the expansive framework of post-minimal art and avant-garde cinema must have suggested other forms of organization. This would, in fact, become a major focus of McCall's subsequent films: the structuring of spectatorial activity and experience in relation to the films' spatio-temporal unfolding.

3. Light, Time and 'Cinematic Space'

McCall is best known for his "solid light" films of 1973-75.

In these, abstract images on the filmstrip shape the projector beam into a three-dimensional light form, made visible by the introduction of smoke into the space. McCall has said that the films act as "stencils" for projected light; the images are transparent, while the black background on which they are drawn is opaque. As light passes through the images, it takes their shape in three dimensions. Arcs, cones, and blades of light grow, pulsate, or sweep dramatically through space. In Line Describing a Cone, for example, a white point within the black film frame traces an arc, then a complete circle. The resulting 3-D light form evolves from a line into a hollow cone of light, forming a point at the projector lens. The cone form is put through a series of permutations in Conical Solid, Partial Cone, and Cone of Variable Volume (all 1974). In Long Film for Four Projectors (1974) and Four Projected Movements (1975), straight lines drawn diagonally across the frame produce flat blades of light that scan the exhibition space. The films require total darkness; any stray ambient light must be extinguished, and the projector, placed within the exhibition space, must be covered to prevent light spillage.

The solid light films enacted a process of cinematic abstraction in which the removal of representational imagery was only the beginning. The films dispense with the screen and two-dimensionality itself, a quality long singled out by essentialist theorists as a necessary condition of film. Since the films encourage viewers to interact with the light beam and look at it from multiple perspectives, the ideal space for the solid light films is an open, empty one more like the gallery than the auditorium. McCall also dropped the convention of the seated, immobile cinema audience, taking up the norms of gallery spectatorship instead. In Long Film for Four Projectors, for instance, the repeated reloading of reels onto the projectors extends the duration of the film to six hours, with viewers coming and going at will rather than assembling at a specific time to watch the film from start to finish. In spatial terms, the film creates a field of projected light without the single focal point (the screen) of other films. Hence, its space and time engender the type of spectatorial experience more commonly thought of as sculptural.

McCall's peeling away of cinematic materials and exhibition conventions culminated in Long Film for Ambient Light (1975), a 24-hour event, entirely film-less, consisting of an empty loft space illuminated by diffused window light during the day and a bare light bulb at night. A schedule isolating one 24-hour cycle of the work within a 50-day span and an artist's statement were attached to one wall. In the statement, "Notes in Duration," McCall linked Long Film for Ambient Light to his fire events; both possessed an expanded spatial and temporal scale that mitigated against the formation of an audience, enabling a "one-to-one relationship between spectator and work." But despite the work's affinities with performance and sculpture, its location in a gallery-type space, and the fact that it involved no film, McCall asserted it as a film, placing it firmly within avant-garde cinema's long tradition of film-ontological investigation: "I am now interested in reducing the 'performance' aspect, in order to examine other fundamentals, viz temporality, light. I am presently assuming that it is possible to do this without using the customary photochemical and electro-mechanical processes.."

McCall's remark suggests that a work without film could still be a "film" if it possessed certain fundamental cinematic properties, identified here as light and time. An influential text in this regard was Metaphors on Vision, Brakhage's summation of his aesthetics written in 1960. Reading the text for the first time in late 1972 or early 1973, McCall must have taken special interest in Brakhage's ecstatic proclamations about projected light:

Believe in [film] eye-wise, and the very comet of its overhead throw from projector to screen will intrigue you so deeply that its fingering play will move integrally with what's reflected, a comet-tail integrity which would lead back finally to the film's creator. I am meaning, simply, that the rhythms of change in the beam of illumination which now goes entirely over the heads of the audience would, in the work of art, contain in itself some quality of a spiritual experience.

Brakhage anticipates expanded cinema, the radical broadening of film beyond the bounds of the "customary photochemical and electro-mechanical processes." Film is liberated not only from the limitations of mimesis, but from the material constraints of the medium itself. This opening up of the category of cinema was also an "opening out" of film into three-dimensionality. From this expansive logic came the concept of "cinematic space," the object of intensive investigation by the next generation of avant-garde filmmakers, especially those associated with the London Filmmakers' Coop.

McCall began attending LFMC screenings in 1970, and showed his own work there after moving to the U.S. He has spoken of the influence of the Coop, particularly its emphasis on spectatorial activity within the space of the cinema. This activity was usually considered in cognitive terms, most famously in 'structural-materialist' films that placed special demands on viewer cognition, the primary goal of politically-engaged avant-garde cinema stretching back at least to the Soviets. But McCall and others (including Lis Rhodes, William Raban, and Malcolm Le Grice) extended the notion of the active viewer to the physical sphere with films that drew attention to their surroundings and encouraged participation and interaction. In this context, "space" was not a sculptural value relevant only to gallery viewing, but a feature of cinema. As object-based art like painting and sculpture took on a temporal dimension (in "action" interpretations of Abstract Expressionism and phenomenological readings of minimalism), film gained a spatial dimension. The reigning conception of "duration" among avant-garde filmmakers at the time merged both vectors - temporal and spatial - into a single phenomenal experience. McCall's projected light forms, unfolding simultaneously in time and space, are particularly vivid embodiments of this concept, and of avant-garde film's exploration of new forms, spaces, and modes of spectatorship.

4. The Solid Light Films Then and Now

Line Describing a Cone garnered new attention from the art world during the Whitney Museum's exhibition, "Into the Light," which offered a genealogy of moving image installation art, now a dominant form in the contemporary art world.

With this premise in mind, the Whitney presented Line as a looped installation that spectators could visit on their own time rather than in screenings with scheduled beginning and end times (the format in which the film was usually shown). The film was thus experienced as a sculptural object, a manifestation of the phenomenological aesthetic of minimalism, conceptual art's use of ephemeral substances, and the participatory ethic of happenings. Its relationship to avant-garde film received little mention.

Under these circumstances, McCall began to reconsider his solid light films, and since 2003 has made several new ones. Doubling Back (2003), Turning Under (2004), Breath (2004), and the vertically projected Between You and I (2006) follow the general format of the earlier works, but are different in significant ways. McCall's use of computer imaging software rather than standard frame-by-frame film animation enables much more complex forms. In Doubling Back, for instance, two slowly undulating waves of light overlap, creating subtle curves and corridors whose movements are less predictable than those of the earlier films. In Turning Under, a blade of light like those in Long Film for Four Projectors intersects a wave; both shapes slowly twist from a vertical to a horizontal orientation, seeming to press down on the space and the spectator within it.

The titles of the new films evoke narratives and the body, a reference McCall has made consistently in conversations and interviews. The movements of the sensuous curvilinear forms possess an organic quality, further calling to mind connotations of the body. One consequence of McCall's re-examination of his earlier works, then, is a rediscovery of their connotative richness, which was framed out by the anti-illusionist bias of structural and structural-materialist film and post-minimal literalness. The emphasis on scale, the relationship between work and viewer, and the physicality of cinematic experience are re-imagined as bodily metaphors of movement (Doubling Back, Turning Under), physiology (Breath), and interpersonal relations (Between You and I).

This raises another key difference between the two generations of films. The new work has mainly been shown in galleries as installations, and McCall has increasingly discussed it in sculptural terms, though he ultimately places it in a grey zone between the sculptural and cinematic, conceiving each category as independent of any particular medium and therefore quite fluid. The question - sculpture or cinema? - isn't merely academic. Placing the work in one or another context has consequences for where and when it is shown, and how it is experienced and talked about. McCall is particularly attentive to the differences between the temporality of the gallery and that of the cinema. When he took to the gallery space in the seventies, he was concerned that creating a "one-to-one relationship between spectator and work" might ultimately isolate the spectator, privileging a kind of absorbed, individualistic spectatorial experience that Modernist criticism advocated over the dynamic and participatory experience of post-minimal art. When the Whitney reconfigured Line Describing a Cone as an installation, he worried that the viewers' ability to make out broad temporal patterns and to feel the sheer duration of the entire film's unfolding might be compromised. He was pleased with the result, however, and came to think of it as another version of the film. In reference to the new films, McCall speaks of the benefits of the installation format, which requires viewers to discover the films in a different way. In a sense, the context - both the literal exhibition space and the artistic traditions it represents - is as much McCall's medium as film, light, space, and time.

McCall has suggested that the worlds of art and of avant-garde cinema are like the strands of a double-helix, "spiraling closely around one another without ever quite meeting." Nonetheless, he has been able to work in both, occupying them comfortably at the same time. He thus emerges as an important figure for anyone trying to make sense of the complicated interactions between film and the other arts in the avant-garde. His films negotiate between the worlds of gallery art and experimental film, drawing on - and drawing together - the aesthetics, histories, methodologies, and institutional spaces of both.

Jonathan Walley is an Assistant Professor in the Cinema Department at Denison University. He has published several texts on Anthony McCall's films and similar work by avant-garde filmmakers of the sixties and seventies.

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