Sylvielin's Blog

Interview with Anthony McCall

Posted in about Art, Interviews with Artists, Interviews with Filmmakers by sylvielin on May 29, 2011

(Interview made in Februrary 2011, Paris)

Anthony McCall, Line Describing a Cone (1973). Installation view of the 24th minute frame from the exhibition Into the Light: the Projected Image in American Art 1964-1977, Whitney Museum of American Art, 2002. Photo/ Hank Graber / Courtesy Galerie Martine Aboucaya, Paris.

(Read related article by Sylvie Lin at

Q  In the 1970s, when you made the “solid light films (including Line Describing a Cone), the experimental or avant-garde films were still largely shown in movie theaters. But works like “solid light films were rather shown in empty spaces, which represented quite a breakthrough with regards to conventional ways of film projections at the time. What was the motivation behind the “solid light films and the process leading to the series of works?

A  The context where I made the works in the 1970s was primarily avant-garde film, both in London and in New York. The show places were not actually cinemas or movie theaters but rather what you might call ‘alternative spaces’: empty rooms with some movable chairs for the audience and a blank white wall to project onto. So the rigid format of the movie theatre was already breaking down. Secondly, one of the key developments in avant-garde film was what came to be called “expanded cinema”. I see this as an important precedent to what’s now called “installation art” in the art galleries. The development of the idea that three-dimensional space could be activated with projectors, moving images, and a durational structure, came from Expanded Cinema. This work moved further and further away from the exhibition structure of the commercial cinema with its hidden projection booths, screen, fixed seating, and so on.

Also, I think in the 1970s, the work that I was interested in had, implicitly or explicitly, an adversarial relationship to Hollywood. This political tendency was probably more prominent in the U.K., less prominent in the U.S., although if you read the early writing of Stan Brakhage, you’ll find him expressing contempt for what he called ‘Hollywooden’. Narrative at the time was the dominant film language. He and others in the 1950s and 1960s saw themselves as working against that.

There was another kind of knowledge being brought to the work of my generation : many of the younger filmmakers had been to art schools in the 1960s and began to make films in the early 1970s. The ideas that were very strongly being developed in the art world had to do with process and the reduction of means to the simplest elements. Those ideas from the visual arts were brought into film practice perhaps for the first time. So I think it was the combination of the political critique and those kinds of aesthetic ideas that created some kind of foundation for what I did.

Q What were your main concerns when you made Line Describing a Cone?

A  For me, it was about cinematic problems, specifically how was it possible to make a film that existed only in the present tense and only at the moment of projection, so that its experience by its audience exactly mirrored its existence in the world. I was satisfied by the way I did that. But I also began to recognize that I had fallen into additional areas which I hadn’t anticipated. One of those was sculpture and the other was in a way performance. I don’t think that I really began to address those issues until I started again ten years ago.

The 24th minute frame of Anthony McCall’s Line Describing a Cone (1973). Courtesy Galerie Martine Aboucaya, Paris

Q  In an interview you did with Scott McDonald, you mentioned you were interested by Peter Gidal’s writing about Warhol’s films. What interested you in Warhol’s cinema ?

A  Gidal was a filmmaker. He wrote a book about Warhol’s films — Andy Warhol : Films and Paintings (Studio Vista/Dutton Pictureback, 1971). I was particularly taken by his discussion of “Empire”. I was also interested in David Curtis’ book, Experimental Film. He wrote about Warhol and other American filmmakers like Tony Conrad and Michael Snow, and it included a description of Snow’s « Wavelength ». The reason I was interested by the two films was the same : each of them represented a work generated by a single idea. A single idea sets the whole system in motion. In Warhol’s case, the idea was making a film of the  Empire State Building where the time of watching it on the screen mirrors the time taken to film it. There was this one to one relationship between the shooting and the object. Snow’s “Wavelength” was constructed in a single zoom, beginning with wide-angle and going to full close-up, taking half an hour to do it. That was the formal organizing principle. Later, after having made my first film “Landscape for Fire” – which was a very traditional film with lots of shots put together to arrive at a description of an event, I was asking myself how to make a film that only existed in the present. From the two examples, I knew that it was possible to make a film from a single organizing idea.

Q In the same interview with Scott McDonald, you talked about your experience of seeing ‘Line Describing a Cone’ for the first time. You said that it was only at the screening that you recognized the aesthetic characteristics of the work. When you create a work, do you take into consideration the aesthetic qualities?

A  When I think about a new work, I don’t think about the effect or the impact of my formal manipulations. I certainly think about things like how fast it is or how slow it is. For instance, if I make something too fast, then people stop walking around it and viewing it as stulpture. They stay in one place and watch it like a movie. I usually begin with a simple formal idea. For instance, in You and I, Horizontal, the formal idea essentially was to take two completely independent forms like an ellipse and a wave, and to use an eclipse structure that enabled you to see a part of each at once. Sculpturally speaking, it thus becomes a kind of hybrid object, not one thing or the other but a shifting combination of each. Having set the parameters in motion, then of course, I spend a lot of time in the studio, projecting it and changing it, until I’m satisfied.

Anthony McCall, Between You and I (2006). Installation view at Peer, The Round Chapel in 2006. Photo/ Hugo Glendinning. Courtesy Galerie Martine Aboucaya, Paris.

Q  Regarding your computer-generated works, there are horizontal and vertical series. Are there certain points of interest regarding the two series respectively?

A  There’s a big overlap and there are differences. All the seventies’ films I made were horizontal. When I started again around 2000, the initial new pieces were horizontal, like the earlier ones. But as I began to use digital projectors, I realized that unlike film projectors, they could be turned upside down or stood on their heads, and they worked just as well. So I found trhat it was possible to project vertically. The effect was very different : it emphasized the sculptural orientation of the standing figure. I began to think of them as stand-ins for the body.

Also, with the horizontal work, if you look toward the projector when you’re inside one of these planes of light, you’ll have your back to the line drawing being projected on the wall ; if you turn to look at the line drawing, you have your back to the volumetric form. So you keep choosing one or the other. For the vertical pieces, you can see both at once by directing your sight upward or downward. Even if you have to tilt more or less your head, basically you see both at the same time.Also the form itself is more architectural as an experience. You feel as if you are in an enclosing structure, something like a tent.

Again, with the horizontal work, you approach from one side or the other : left or right. With the vertical, you can come from anywhere. It doesn’t have that left-right axis at all. I can take a very simple example : in You and I, Horizontal, I have a straight horizontal line on the wall which is a flat triangular plane in space. The way it moves is in relation to your vertical body. You’re standing there, as a vertical object looking toward the light. The horizontal plane of light I have is moving very, very slowly, up and down. In other words, it’s painting on your body. It also moves like a plank of wood on the ocean, floating on a wave. If something is floating, it goes up and changes angle and goes down, etc. In a vertical piece, by contrast, projecting a straight line onto the floor, so that the plane of light is now parallel to your body, with the same floating motion, makes no sense. on the vertical piece, that motion that makes no sense is to cause that triangular vertical plane to simply…rotate ! Remember, as an observer you may be approaching from anywhere in the 360 degree space around the form.

Q Why the title Between You and I?

A When I started making art again around 2000 and 2001, I was very interested in sculpting with solid light. I realised that if you look at the early work in a certain way, you could see that it’s somehow very figural. The motion reminds you of the body in some ways. That became my new entry point. Somehow all my late titles began to have something to do with the figure, the body or relationships between people. One of the earliest vertical pieces was called “Exchange ;” there were three works called “Breath”. There I consciously use the expansion and contraction of elliptical forms to suggest breathing. Between You and I was connected to the idea of an exchange going on between two forms. I was thinking about how sculpture has traditionally concerned itself with representing the body by simply showing the body. Yet you can’t actually understand the body by making an image of it. Everything we know about our bodies is always in relation to another body and to other people. The interesting thing is the state of exchange, of continuous transition, that exists between all bodies.

Sketch of Anthony McCall’s outdoor LED installation, Crossing the Hudson (2006), 8 ¼" x 13 ½", displayed on the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge and gradually turned on in one year. Courtesy Galerie Martine Aboucaya, Paris

Q You began to make large-scale outdoor projects. Does it mean a shift on your art-making or there’s some connection to your earlier work?

A I began to make large-scale outdoor projects only in the last few years. They’re of considerable interest to me at the moment. I continue to make my projected work in the studio, but the public work is indeed a new direction. Sometimes I discover very direct correspondences between outdoor work and ‘black box’ works. For instance, the bridge project “Crossing the Hudson” with its structure of the slow lighting up of the bridge over six months, is really close to the structure of “Line Describing a Cone”. It’s the coming-into-being of an object, in one case a one-kilometre-long bridge over the Hudson River, in the other, a ten-metre long cone of light in a gallery space. The accessibility and the scale of public space does interest me. Essentially it is being made possible by the new programmability of LED light. This allows me to do something that is cinematic in structure, but that exists outdoors. Public space is quite different from the space of a museum or a gallery. For instance, leaving aside scale, there is the possibility of the accidental spectator.

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