February 6, 2012

Two UChicago scholars weigh in on the importance of the eminent artist.

Seminal American Avant-Garde artist Anthony McCall will visit the University of Chicago February 24-25 to participate in Film Studies Center: Phenomenologies of Projection, Aesthetics of Transition: Anthony McCall 1970-79, 2001—. The two-day event features an installation of his work and special screenings at the installation site, followed by an artist talk, a symposium dedicated to his work, and a roundtable discussion placing the artist in conversation with curators and scholars.

McCall is best known for “Solid Light Films” such as Line Describing a Cone (1973), experiments in Structuralist film that seek to distill cinema down to its most basic contrasting elements: light and darkness, duration and suspension, physical space and conceptual space.McCall is notable among the generation of Structuralist filmmakers for making work using digital means, rather than seeing the passing of celluloid as the passing of cinema as such.

Of his transition from the analog to digital, McCall says, “I didn't notice a bump: the continuities were more significant than the differences.” When asked to identify the precise medium of his work, he answers, “Light and duration?” leaving the question open. That question and its constellation of answers clearly intrigue a broad audience; seats for the symposium are going quickly, and the group of over one dozen sponsors cuts across scholarly and artistic disciplines.

The expanded cinema exhibition Phenomenologies of Projection, Aesthetics of Transition will give visitors a chance to experience McCall’s work for themselves. This being only the third extended display of McCall’s installations in the United States since 2003, it’s a rare opportunity made all the more special by the company of curators and scholars with an intimate knowledge of his work.

McCall will be joined by fellow panelists Hamza Walker, Director of Education at The Renaissance Society; Tom Gunning, professor of Cinema & Media Studies and Art History at the University of Chicago; Chrissie Iles, curator of Film and Video at the Whitney Museum of American Art; and Daniel Morgan, professor of English, Film, and Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh. In 2001, Iles curated Into the Light: The Projected Image in American art 1964-1977, a landmark exhibition of expanded cinema at the Whitney Museum.

We spoke with Walker and Michelle Menzies, an artist and doctoral candidate in the Department of English Language and Literature, who curated the McCall exhibition as a project of the Film Studies Center Graduate Student Curatorial Program.

UChicago Arts: What is significant about seeing Anthony McCall’s work in person, as opposed to in photographs or videos?

Hamza Walker: Oh, you have to see the pieces in person. They’re phenomenological. They’re in space. You go into a darkened room, and there’s the fog from a fog machine, and just the way that you’re able to walk around the piece as the light describes a shape is a unique experience. To watch it flattened out on a screen is not nearly the same thing.

 This being the kind of work that you have to bring back and experience, scholarship is predicated on bringing it back. [The work is] fresh and new, but at the same time historical. It’s contemporary, but not contemporary, in a very funny way. So to want to submit it to the kind of intellectual querying that goes on here at the University of Chicago, to dredge it up for those purposes, is quite beautiful.

[McCall’s work offers] intellectual accessibility to people from all kinds of disciplines: art history, cinema, math, geometry. Its elegance is its simplicity, so it’s not a head-trip, or something that a mathematician would really get off on. But in another way, it is something that a mathematician would kind of get off on, because of its simplicity.

 I think it would offer itself up to scholars from the Classics department: is this a kind of pure, Platonic art experience? It would flesh out or fulfill a certain trajectory, a reductivist line of modernist thinking that could then be linked to a very Classical set of preoccupations.

It’s the peak of art-for-art’s-sake, culminating in a kind of formalist phenomenology. It’s the zenith of a certain kind of art and thought. What kind of gratification do we get when we have an experience? The experience seems to confirm or validate the self. I exist.

UChicago Arts: What is McCall’s place in the history of art, and of cinema, and of the overlap between the two?

Michelle Menzies: The tradition of exhibiting film in art galleries, which is a really dominant mode right now, actually has a very particular history. And McCall is an unusual figure, because he traverses the sphere of experimental film when it was quite a separate domain, but [he] also was among the pioneers of moving film into art galleries at the moment of installation art in the ‘70s.

The other thing that makes McCall very unusual and very important is that, as a pioneer of Structuralist film, he comes back and starts to make work with digital film. The raises a whole lot of issues that have to do with media transition, and questions of where the cinematic really lies.

There is a conceptual continuity over the course of [McCall’s] practice as an artist that helps us negotiate some of the polemics around media. Those films, or those experiences, cannot be articulated except experientially, bodily, and on some level, conceptually. Often the duration of these pieces is much longer than any person could sustain—much longer than, say, a Warhol film that goes on for eight hours.

These facts are just as true of the digital pieces, and this should give us pause and make us think a little bit, because a lot of the discourse around the digital does tend to foreground dematerialization, a loss of the physical. What you see with McCall is that we’re not actually experiencing a loss of the physical so much as a reorientation of the physical.

For instance, when he made works using the analog or 16mm methods around in the 1970s, he animated his geometrical forms by hand—so you have a very strong sense of the hand actually drawing these lines. There’s a sense of tremor. The digital process [by contrast] allows him to animate algorithmic shapes in ways that are much closer to mathematics.

Until people see these pieces, they don’t really have a sense of them: not just how they work, but of the aesthetic differences between analog and digitally projected light. The event schedule is set up give people the opportunity to do just that. The event schedule is set up give people the opportunity to do just that. We have an installation piece that will be interrupted with performance screenings of the canonical piece, Line Describing a Cone—but the first [day’s] version of this will be on 16mm, and the second day [we’ll screen] a digital version, McCall's own remake. And there will be differences even between these two versions of the same film.

These are the kinds of things we want to talk about. The point of this event is to redirect attention, critically, to the way in which the artist actually works.

By Drew Messinger-Michaels, AM’10


Line Describing a Cone from "Solid Light Films"