A British-born, New York-based artist who’s widely known for his solid light installations, Anthony McCall started out as a performance artist before turning to film and what came to be known as the Expanded Cinema movement. Working with projected beams of light in mist-filled spaces, he creates sculptural forms, which viewers can penetrate, and immersive experiences that redefine space. artBahrain contributing editor Paul Laster recently spoke with the artist about his installation art and an exhibition of his solid light pieces at Pioneer Works in New York.
How did you start using projected, or solid, light as an art form?
I began in 1973. I started as an artist doing live performances in the landscape and began to make films to record them, as they would disappear without documentation. After making my first film I became quite intrigued with structural cinema and interested in the question of whether it was possible to make a film that only existed in the moment of projection. That question led me to make the first solid light film, Line Describing a Cone, in which I invited the audience to turn its back and face the projector in order to look at the three-dimensional form that existed between it and the screen.
Were you part of the Expanded Cinema movement?
Yes, I was, but not that one knew it at the time. By Expanded Cinema we mean the realization that projectors are portable things—you don’t need rows of seats or a hidden projection booth, you can make what we now call an installation using projected images and projectors.
Is it still an active art or film movement?
I think it’s gotten absorbed into the central DNA of where we are with cinema. Cinema as an institution has changed profoundly in the last 25 years. It used to means the movies, but now the institution of cinema has fractured into many, many shards and gone into many places with the rise of digital technology. You see cinema on the sides of buildings and you see it on devices the size of your wristwatch—and everything in-between. And one of the places cinema has lodged is in the art world, not surprisingly. You could say that Expanded Cinema was one of those early warning movements that began to shift the ground that was soon to shift technologically.
What elements go into the making of your work?
I start with drawings—both perspectival drawings, which show how an installation works in space, and structural drawings that develop the way the planes of light will move and change over time.
Do you consider your installations to be immersive?
Yes, although it’s not a term I particularly like. It is, however, immersive when you go into one of my installations. You move into a dark space and what you see are planes of light moving across the space, intersecting with one another and you are surrounded by the work. You are also invited to enter it. These are sculptural forms, but they are made of something utterly immaterial. You can treat a plane of light as a wall if you like, but you also know that you can pass straight through it.
Is your work also performative?
I think it is. When I made Line Describing a Cone I stumbled into all kinds of realms that I hadn’t really considered. I found that I was in sculptural space, which had to be taken into account, and I was also in a performance space, in that the spectator was negotiating the space in relation to the object that I’d made, while also negotiating the space in relation to the other visitors. Unwittingly, everyone becomes a performer for everyone else.
Drawing plays a role in the diagrammatic sketches, but how about in the actual projection of the work? Are the linear elements that are moving in space drawings, too?
That’s a great question. I think so, yes. I would firmly say yes. Whatever else these installations are they are at the end of the day still a drawing. At the centre of any installation—as you have described them—is a line and that line is producing the volumetric object, as well. I rather like the fact that co-existing at the moment when you look at these works is a drawing and a volumetric form, which changes over time according to its own internal rules.
What are you actually showing at Pioneer Works?
I’m showing a group of six works—four of which are vertical and shown in a row, and then in another room are two horizontal installations. This is actually the first grouping of solid light works in the United States and certainly the first showing of a group of vertical works.
Are the works site-specific?
They are not; they are site-sensitive. There are certain basic requirements. The vertical works require a 30-foot room and a certain scale laterally; it needs to be dark; there needs to be a certain way for people to come in and out without disrupting the darkness; and there’s a light mist in the room that cannot be allowed to escape. If I’m invited to do an exhibition the first thing I do is look at the space to see how well it can be adapted to show these pre-existing works. There’s usually a lot of fine tuning and adjusting, with small changes that take place. Essentially, works precede an exhibition; they’re not made for it.
How do the vertical works differ from the horizontal ones?
They’re profoundly different. With the horizontal ones, you’re always at the same height of the beam, where you can interact with the light from the lens of the projector to the opposite wall and are inside them at all times, while the vertical works are like giant cones of light, which makes them more architectural—imagine a space that’s 30-feet tall with a base of about 15-feet. You occupy the vertical ones almost like you occupy a building, with the aperture providing an entry point. They have a monumental feeling to them, although they are only made with light.
What happens with the linear element at the footprint?
The footprint is essentially a white line drawing. It’s a white line drawing against a black background. If we’re projecting downward onto the floor, as we do with the vertical works, the line is what’s visible on the floor—you don’t see the cinematic frame at all. The mist in the space picks up the physicality of the beam so you have visible planes of light that go from a point way above your head down to the drawing on the floor.
Are you using computer programming or animation?
These solid light works have always been made using simple animation. That was no less true in the analog days of the 1970s. Then the animation was drawn by hand—literal line drawings, which I filmed frame by frame. Nowadays we use algorithms to produce the same result, and the result is very similar. At the end of the day, whether it’s analog or digital, you have a projected plane of light in space.
When you say the space is dark, how dark does it have to be?
It has to be perfectly dark. The first thing we do when we do an installation is take control of the ambient light in order to create a space that is totally dark. Having said that, I’m aware that when the pieces are installed and the projectors are running there’s a kind of silvery light, which brings the darkness back to a place where your eyes get accustomed to the space and you can move quite easily if you want. You can see because of the ambient light thrown off of the pieces.
You mentioned a mist. Does a haze machine produce it? What part does the mist play?
A haze machine does produce the mist, which plays a crucial role. If we had an installation with all of the elements—projector, dark space, etc.—all of the elements except the haze machine you would only see the projector up on the wall (if you could see it at all) and a line drawing on the floor, but nothing in-between. The haze, which is a very thin mist, captures every speck of light and amplifies it. It turns light into a visible plane.
Do you consider the works to be sculptures, and if so why?
I do consider them to be sculptures because they are volumetric, three-dimensional objects in space and in order to comprehend them you have to walk around them. You have to move your own body in relation to these forms, which is a classic sculptural requirement.
Are they also a form of cinema?
Yes, they’re cinema because there is a structure that changes over time, which in the end is perhaps the most important element. If we showed these sculptural elements with no motion, with no change over time, you might think they are beautiful, but you wouldn’t stay for very long. The emotional charge, which people report receiving from being in these installations, comes from the paradox that we have something that appears not to move, but is moving very slowly and according to an identifiable logic, which you can follow. The two things together—sculpture and cinema—are the two elements that collaborate to produce the effects of the pieces.
And are they time-based art?
Yes, that’s the cinematic end of it—the temporality. Importantly, the structure of the work is a structure that unfolds over time. There is a disclosure that takes place from minute to minute, where things that were previously hidden are now revealed.
Are there any sound elements involved?
A couple of the solid light pieces have sound, an explicit soundtrack. Most of them are silent, but I’m the generation of John Cage, so there is no such thing as silence—there’s always an ambient sound and those sounds are welcomed. There’s always a sort of murmuring as people are talking quietly and looking and moving through the space. When you introduce a “soundtrack,” you do in fact cover up or blanket that ambient sound. I’m very interested in this problem. For me, it’s the negative meaning of immersive, where the individual gets a little lost or absorbed by the spectacle. I’m very cautious about the use of sound because it’s great virtue is that it can sweep you up and swamp you, but that’s also a difficulty if you consider that there’s a value in a kind of quiet contemplative relationship to something.
But you are having some programming that brings sound to the installations at Pioneer Works, right?
Yes, we have some special programming curated by David Grubbs, a composer, musician and writer. He has come up with a structure that I think beautifully interacts with the structure of the show. He’s created a performance structure for the music, whereby four performers are part of the four vertical works and producing—as he calls it—four simultaneous solos. In order to hear and understand the way the music is working the visitor needs to move around the space. The sounds are spread across 100-feet of space, but not amplified.
How has technology impacted the way you’ve made these kinds of works over the past decades?
The big shift that has occurred in my lifetime is the shift from analog to digital. During the 1970s I used 16mm film, film cameras, film projectors and made things by hand. Fast forward 25 years, in the ‘80s and ‘90s we saw the big bang of the digital revolution, which—to come back to an earlier question—in retrospect the movement Expanded Cinema, with a capital E and capital C, was a controlled explosion, compared to the big bang of the digital revolution. During those two decades we saw the shift to the personal computer and the digital interface and gradually to projection itself changing profoundly. By about 2005—after I had been working again for a few years—I was completely comfortable with digital technology and programming. They provided opportunities for things that I could not have done before. For example, although I had drawn in my ‘70s’ notebooks the idea of a vertical work, it wasn’t until the invention of the digital projector that I could actually realize it. A film projector can’t really be turned 90 degrees from the ceiling without the reel falling off, but a digital projector is a grey box that can go any which way. So those kinds of opportunities were realizable for the first time.
Will the technology still be there to recreate them in the future?
That’s another great question. I think the answer is yes, but we live in a stage where we are constantly migrating our technology and our software. It produces different kinds of risks, which we learn to live with. The whole culture is predicated on the same risks. The art world is not a special case
Portrait of Anthony McCall
Photo: Kyle Dorosz
Installation view. Solid Light Works: Anthony McCall. Curated by Gabriel Florenz. Pioneer Works, New York
January 12 – March 11, 2018. © Dan Bradica