Monday, 30 March 2009

Anthony McCall - Filmworks


Anthony McCall’s extraordinary film works seek to de-codify a certain logic of established film or cinema and its relation to the spectator. McCall seems fascinated by the exploration and realisation of a cinematic logic yet unexplored, marginalized or suppressed but absolutely implicit to the form. In McCall’s solid light films there is a concentration upon what he calls ‘the projected light beam itself, rather than treating the light beam as a mere carrier of coded information’. His films deal with the irreducibility and necessity of projected light, he describes Line Describing a Cone as ‘the first film to exist in real, three dimensional space.’. The projected light itself becomes tactile and textural, and often involves varying degrees of complex modulation, permutation and repetition. All involve a certain reversal or at least an alteration of the politics of spectatorship, insofar as we are encouraged to gaze into the light rather than at the projected ‘image’. We are able to ‘enter’ into the film, become incorporated within it, to become with it, to pierce its fabric and occlude it. Our physical bodies are in an active relation to the film works rather than a traditionally passive role. These films dwell upon the nature of time – the invisible force of time - duration, multiplicity, change and becoming, and they force us to become engaged with continuous, overlapping and multiple durations that profoundly effect us physiologically.


McCall’s work not only brings into question our conventional ways of seeing and our way of relating to a sensory image, but ultimately our relation to each other.


‘Haptic Vision’

In his philosophical work on the cinema Deleuze reflects on the type of films that confront us with a certain challenge to our conventional powers of recognition, films that presents a ‘shock to thought’. Such works disrupt our capacity to link certain images through causal, rational or logical relations. The viewer becomes essentially liberated from certain habitual patterns of thought and is able to draw upon certain virtual reserve of thought in an act of co-creation of the projected film object. This form of cinema implicates the body and its alteration in the most profound fashion – the body is freed from certain patterns of control, enabling us to begin to think anew. In the cinema a certain kind of ‘time-image’ can be experienced in this altered body and as such invites a more direct experience of time. Certain time-images within the cinema invite a radical embodied form of filmic contemplation, but for Deleuze this cannot relate to the bodies we have already been given but to the way in which the body is altered and created anew. This new body emerges from a disruption and displacement of the pre-existing body. Certain films challenge the conventional relation of viewer/spectator and cinematic work. A significant part of this challenge is the invention of a new mode of cinematic visibility and sensation - what Deleuze calls ‘haptic vision’. With this cinematic haptics the capacity of our eyes become altered and expanded and begin to function like organs of touch. This haptic form of seeing is to be distinguished from optical visuality, which sees things from enough distance to perceive them as distinct forms in deep space: or, in other words, how we usually conceive of vision. Haptic looking tends to traverse the surface of the object rather than to plunge into the illusionistic depth of representational space, and as such it is not so much a matter of distinguishing identifiable form as the effort to discern sensation, texture and tactile intensive qualities. Space becomes tactile as if the eye were now a hand caressing one surface after another without any sense of the overall configuration or mutual relation of those surfaces.

This type of haptic space is particularly evident when one becomes literally incorporated within one of McCall’s ‘solid-light’ sculptures, e.g. Doubling Back and Turn. These are sensational forms to literally become lost in, which force us to repeatedly orient ourselves through the tactile exploration of the diaphanous fabric of the modulated form and changing our perspective through movement. There is a type of virtual space whose fragmented components can be assembled in multiple combinations and perspectives. It is clear that these haptic films involve the body much more than is the case with optical visuality. In the smooth space created by these tactile light forms all orientation, landmarks and the linkages between things are placed into continuous state of variation – i.e. a continuous transmutation which operates step-by-step to no pre-arranged or pre-governed schema. There are few stable unified referents since the orientations are never constant, but constantly modulate and change. Interlinkages are constituted differently each and every time according to an emergent realm of dynamic tactile and sensory relationships.

Thinking of cinema as haptic rather than optic is a step towards a consideration of the way in which cinema is capable of appealing to the body as a whole. The body becomes incorporated and enveloped more actively within the projected spectacle. Clearly the relevance of this view of haptic vision to understanding of McCall’s film works probably appears obvious. The surfaces of McCall’s filmworks, e.g. Line Describing a Cone, Doubling Back & Turn, are like magical diaphanous fabrics, sheets of light that display a delicate solidity. As such these solid light projections invite a far more radically tactile kind of vision and response. As viewers of these projections we are incorporated into an experimental or playful tactile relation to the outside, the surface and the inside of the projected image. In McCall’s work there is a reciprocity that occurs with this bodily incorporation into the tactile fabric of the film insofar as the spectator can and does affect the fabric of the film form itself through interacting sensually with it. McCall’s work thus changes both the nature of the filmic visibility through the nature of what he calls the direct and real existence of the projected light in three-dimensional space (or the body of the film) and the effected change in the perceptual attitude and body of the spectator. As one moves around a film like Line Describing a Cone, there is an irrevocable modulation and alteration on one’s perception of the artwork which becomes acutely clear when one tries to perhaps return to a certain position/perspective. What one finds (and it can be a bit of a shock) is that everything has seemingly changed, yet that change has been imperceptible.


The ‘Time-Image’

There is an implicit critique of certain notions of temporality within much of McCall’s work that displays a further affinity with Bergson and Deleuze’s philosophy of time. Time, duration, movement and becoming are very important aspects in all of McCall’s work. Much of his work, for example, contains an implicit critique of the hierarchical distinction between the so-called atemporal artforms such as painting and sculpture and time-based artforms like film and video. McCall embraces the disruptive insights of Performance, Happening or Event based artworks, (i.e. the insight that everything that occurs, including the process of looking and thinking, always occurs in time and that and that many conventional distinctions are quite absurd). There is at the heart of McCall’s film work a profound disruption of conventional notions of time together with an attempt to expand our understanding of temporality and duration. Both Bergson and Deleuze were interested in what they perceived to be the illusory or absurd notion of temporality that has tended to dominate conventional thought and perception. For both thinkers the illusory nature of time has given birth to a proliferation of so-called ‘false problems’. Bergson, Deleuze & McCall struggle against this illusion by attempting to rethink the complexities of real temporality and duration. For all three of them the illusory nature of temporality emerges from a certain thinking of time subordinated to spatial concepts., i.e. the seemingly pre-given understanding of static and homogenous spatiality from which we often derive our interpretation of time. The problem to be addressed by each of them is to rethink temporality on the basis of movement, qualitative change, modulated becoming and coexisting qualitative durations. For them our bodies, our nervous systems, are open to a succession of qualitative changes that are not mapped out as mechanical intervals but as a flow of time, each instant permeating each other. In conventional thought we tend to think of time as an abstract, homogenous element, which we measure through the discreet intervals of clock time. However, these discreet intervals are merely artificial and ultimately interchangeable static points. For Bergson, Deleuze & McCall the passage of time is more than the mere succession of states inscribed within discrete and even intervals. Our experience of time is that of duree, duration, of a dynamic continuation of a past into a present and toward a future. Each present moment interpenetrates the next present moment, with each new present functioning as a qualitatively different moment, each moment pushing into the next in a single movement of becoming. With each present moment something new comes into existence, something unpredictable emerges which then forms with the subsequent moments of becoming a qualitatively distinct ensemble or assemblage of time. So genuine duration is fundamentally indeterminate; the future is truly open and unforeseeable. Time is creation, time is invention, time is becoming. Time makes a difference because each moment brings forth something qualitatively new. It is this aspect which accounts for the radically different qualitative experience of time (e.g. in some circumstances 5 minutes can seem like an hour, and in others an hour speeds by and feels like barely a few minutes). Time is not homogenous but is heterogeneous, and McCall’s work precisely evokes this heterogeneous aspect of time. Repetitions, permutation, virtual stasis, imperceptible modulation, all serve, paradoxically, to render this strange qualitative nature of time something sensible. We literally become lost and enveloped within these works (e.g. this element is particularly evident with Long Film for Four Projectors) Homogenous clock-time dissipates as we become subject to the complex co-existence of multiple rhythms of duration.

It might seem that the Cinema projector just seemingly operates in a manner similar to our ordinary discursive modes of perception, intellection and language; i.e. we attempt to comprehend process, becoming and movement by slicing time into an abstract sequence of static moments, or immobile cuts, and then somehow re-link them back together into a homogenous systematic and rational order. Rather than grasping each particular specific movement as an indivisible whole with its own concrete duration, in which there is no distinction between motion and that which moves (what McCall calls the atemporal and the temporal), we imagine a single, homogenous space-container, within which we situate the moments of an object’s movement as so many static, co-present points, and from this spatial image we develop the concept of an abstract, mechanical time as a regular repetition of homogenous, interchangeable moments. Real movement and concrete duration give way to immobile cuts and abstract time. However, for Deleuze cinema is in fact capable of going way beyond these discursive tendencies of thought and perception, in fact it is capable of fundamentally offering a challenge to them. Cinema has certain implicit resources for rendering real movement and concrete duration visible, which then subsequently emerge as a shock to thought. The type of contemporary cinema capable of presenting a direct and real image of time is what Deleuze calls the Time-Image.

In the time-image what is present is what the image represents (e.g. the incomplete circle in McCall’s Line Describing a Cone), but not the Image itself (e.g. the haptic solid form of projected light in McCall’s Line Describing a Cone). In cinema, as in painting, the Image is never to be confused with what it represents. (McCall himself has noted this odd jarring separation of represented image and what is called the haptic image, in particular in relation to a recent work Doubling Back: ‘I have noticed that the curving lines of the two dimensional drawing on the wall sometimes appear to have an existence independent of the three-dimensional forms in space. Which, of course, is impossible. But, turning around to look at the drawn lines after I have been enveloped within the projected object, I am sometimes surprised at what I see.’



For Deleuze the direct time-image ‘gives us access to that Proustian dimension where people and things occupy a place in time which is incommensurable with the one they have in space.’ This passage captures a crucial element of Anthony McCall’s work, of how, when we become enveloped within the haptic image, within the body of the form, we are transported to a temporal zone rather than a spatial one, and this temporal zone is not one fundamentally subservient to conventional notion of space but a direct and real experience of time that has its basis in concrete duration, movement, modulation and becoming. Such a direct image of time appears as a force disrupting chronological space. What is specific to the time-image is the rendering perceptible, the rendering visible, of different relationships of time that are normally invisible, that cannot be seen in the straightforward represented object in the ‘abstracted’ present, and do not allow themselves to be reduced to such an abstracted interval of the present. The time-image goes beyond the purely empirical and discursive succession of time – past-present-future. The time-image displays the co-existence of distinct durations, levels or strata of duration whereby a single event can belong to several qualitatively different temporal levels. McCall’s work precisely encompasses this temporal multiplicity through its presentation of permutated and modulated temporal rhythms in the projected work itself (e.g. Long Film for Four Projectors, the undulating modulation of two lines in Doubling Back and Turn), and then also through the introduction of the qualitatively different concrete durations of different spectators into the complex assemblage of duration already present within the work. There is a kind of ongoing confrontation between the different concrete durations of work and spectator in the creation of a complex assemblage or co-existence of different durations. In this way that McCall film works begin to articulate a broadened and expanded conception of time. For Deleuze, as for McCall, the cinema (the cinematic form) is still at a germinal stage in terms of its investigation of its own resources for capturing and rendering visible certain relationships of time in an image. There are new and yet unexplored powers for capturing the ‘invisible forces of time’, and it is these powers that McCall’s film works evoke, it is these powers that serve to challenge our conventional modes of thought, that provide a shock to thought, and that demand the invention of new ways of looking, relation, and thought.


The Ethics of Time - Resistance in McCall's Work

For Deleuze a significant characteristic of modernity is the degree to which an essential link between humans and the world has become fractured or broken. In his work on the cinema Deleuze claims that we seem to have reached a point in modernity where we no longer believe in the world; we are increasingly confronted with the intolerable quality of the world. This does not necessarily consist in some terrible horror or spectacle (although there is no shortage of that), rather there is a kind of ‘quotidian banality’, the sense that we are living in a bad film – the world just looks like a bad film. We fear that we have become as hollow, banal and as clich├ęd as the world that envelops us. The world’s common-sense continuities and regularities seemingly appear to be nothing more than parodies of themselves. Deleuze argues that the link between the human and the world must become re-enchanted as an object of belief: it is the impossible which can only be restored within a distinctly Nietzschean form of faith. But this is not a spiritual faith directed or addressed to a different world, but rather a newly emergent material faith in the real. Time-image cinema must no longer film the world, represent the world, in straightforward terms but must now elaborate a new mode of belief in this world. For Deleuze it is simply a matter of forging a new type of belief within the body. It is the body which provides the new, experimental and vital principle of linkage.



Time-image cinema seeks a radically new and experimental connection between human beings and the world, and such a connection requires very different new modes of thought. It is this quality of McCall’s work, (which McCall himself terms a ‘participatory performance’) that is most evident within its explicit sincerity and affirmative nature. It attempts to enact a new type of sensorial faith in the world through a reconfiguration of the body and its relation to time and space. Connected to this is the way in which McCall’s work has an irreducible communal aspect, i.e. the way that it forces us to think about our interactions with others, but equally importantly the way it seems to render one acutely aware of how we are exploring, haptically, of how we are experimenting and playing with the tactile elements together, as a group. This communal aspect is bound up with the degree to which McCall’s work partakes of the whole historical ethos of happening, event or performance based artworks. George Baker’s essay on McCall indicates the irreducible communal aspect of the work; he terms it the ‘communal process of cinematic incorporation’ where there is an intermingling and sharing of separate bodies around the body of the projected light form. There is in McCall’s work the creation of an entirely new sociality and politics of film, precisely in Deleuze’s sense. It is, perhaps, a sociality and politics of film capable of enacting a form of sincere resistance to the corrosive nihilism that emerges from the everyday banalities of the spectacles produced by the represented world. McCall’s work ultimately plunges us back into an experimental and collective process of cinematic perception by rendering it excessively haptic and physical. There is something deeply affirmative about being in this space collectively exploring the tactile dimensions of these modulating sensory forms, something that perhaps is capable of reconnecting us to a deep and almost timeless aspect of art, something that spans from Chauvet & Lascaux through to modernity. Here we become temporarily freed from the banality of the everyday spectacle of the world, from the banality of the habits of our perceptual apparatus, simply by becoming enveloped within these temporal sculptures of light. We are forced, through wonder, through shock and through sensation to reconsider our primordial relation to the world – to time, space, and to others. These works may allow for the possibility of renewed sense of compassion, and of compassionate resistance.

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