As a film and video archivist, I’m excited to see the amount of moving image work being exhibited at the Carnegie right now. It’s all over the place: projected on floors and projected on doors, shown on a screen or a TV monitor machine, to state it in rhyming couplet form. Thanks to the 2013 Carnegie International and the reinstallation of the Scaife galleries—and to the hard work of assistant curator Amanda Donnan and the rest of the contemporary art department—you can scarcely turn your head without seeing some manifestation of what we in the biz call time-based media. But beyond the artworks on display, I’ve been fascinated to see so many examples of the cinematic apparatus being revealed, if not highlighted, in the installation of those works. The most obvious case in point is Rodney Graham’s The Green Cinematograph (Programme I: Pipe smoker and overflowing sink) (2010), probably my favorite single piece in the International, a 16mm film that cuts between a shots of Graham smoking a pipe and a sink overflowing with soap bubbles. More specifically, it’s a 16mm film that passes through a stunning, custom-built projector with a massive looper made of transparent green Lucite, into which the film cascades, creating a swirling tableau that recalls the hypnotic liquid light shows projected behind psychedelic rock concerts in the 1960s and 70s, or the lava lamps that brought that psychedelia into our very homes. There’s also certainly a resonance between the flow of the spent film strip and the bubbles projected on screen, but if you end up watching the looper and ignoring the screen altogether, that’s cool too.
The whirring of the projector is a near-omnipresent sound in the contemporary galleries. In the Scaife film room, Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight* (1963) plays, the only soundtrack the opening and closing of the projector’s shutter. The 16mm film, actually made by pressing small bits of detritus between two strips of splicing tape, inevitably draws your attention from the projected image to the physical object and the mechanism of the projector. The same can be said of Tarantism (2007), by Joachim Koester, another silent, 16mm film, in which the spastic dancing of the performers clashes with the uniformity of the projector’s moving parts. As the film passes again and again through the looper, the apparatus takes on an ominous quality, forcing the dancers through a perpetual cycle of frenzied convulsions.
*Note: Between the writing and publication of this post, Mothlight was deinstalled, but the 16mm projector is still hard at work in the Scaife film room. The current film is Robert Nelson’s Oh Dem Watermelons (1965), a frenetic and positively Gallagher-like assault on the eponymous fruit. A full schedule of experimental films can be found here.
The fourth and final film projector/looper can be found among the gems in the Wertz Gallery of the Museum of National History. In fact, as you enter the room, the only thing you see is the projector, sitting on a tall pedestal and pointing outside the room, down an adjoining corridor. Coming into line with the projector, you glimpse the screen, on which plays Mark Leckey’s Made in ’Eaven (2004). The fact that the two elements of the piece, the projector and the screen, inhabit different spaces underscores the unsettling tension of the film, between the physical fact of the analog media, and the impossible picture it captures, a probing pan around Jeff Koons’s mirrored bunny that could only have been accomplished through digital manipulation. As an analog type of fella, I found myself backing away from the uncanny image, toward the comforting hum of the projector.
If you’re interested in learning more about archiving and exhibiting moving image works in a museum, register for Carnegie Museum of Art’s symposium A Collection of Misfits: Time-Based Media and the Museum, taking place Nov. 21–23, 2013. The Misfits symposium will bring archivists, artists, curators, and conservators from institutions around the world to discuss case studies, pressing issues, and the future of the field. For more information, visit our website: www.cmoa.org/misfits.
This focus on the apparatus isn’t restricted to film work, either. In Tony Oursler’s video installation (Telling) Vision #3 (1994), a video projector angled atop a tripod figures significantly, simultaneously giving a face and a voice to the brown-suited scarecrow (also propped up on a tripod) and gazing curiously up at the bizarre character. A closed-circuit security camera and monitor provide a live mirror for the Thinker to contemplate in Nam June Paik’s TV Rodin (1976-1978).
In all of these cases, the “audiovisual equipment” usually hidden in museum exhibition is brought to the fore, becoming vital elements of the work. It is a good rule of thumb when looking at moving image work to think about how the images are produced and transmitted; these processes are essential to the artists and should inform how we consume the work. The film and video on view at the Carnegie press the issue by laying bare the cinematic apparatus, and acknowledging it as an intrinsic component of the art object.