Anthony McCall by Stephen Johnstone & Graham Ellard

BOMB 97 Fall 2006
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Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

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Anthony McCall, Between You and I, 2006, Sixteenth Minute. Installation at Peer/The Round Chapel, London, 2006. Photo by Hugo Glendenning, © Anthony McCall 2006.

Until the installation of his 1973 solid-light film, Line Describing a Cone in Chrissie Iles’s Whitney exhibition Into The Light in 2001, Anthony McCall remained one of those artists whose work circulated almost entirely in the form of two or three very well-known documentary photographs: his art was immediately recognizable, canonical even, but rarely experienced firsthand.

What became immediately apparent at the Whitney was just how fundamental direct sensory experience is to McCall’s work. No matter how many times one might read a description of Long Film for Four Projectors or see a picture of spectators dangling their fingers in the projected beam of light that is Line Describing a Cone, nothing prepares you for the truly beguiling and visceral experience of sharing a space with this body of work. Occupying a threshold position between film and sculpture, the solid-light films ask the viewer to participate in an event that overturns nearly everything we expect of a projected image. By the simple act of paying attention to the projected beam of light and asking the spectator to turn his or her back to the image on the wall, McCall’s solid-light films move back and forth between a total immersion in a beautiful or captivating spectacle—and beautiful or magical or captivating are descriptive terms used without apology by many in response to these films—and an analytical, self-conscious experience of structure being enacted or played out before the spectator.

Since the inclusion of McCall’s work in Into The Light, the early solid-light films have been shown extensively in Europe and America, and they have found a new and exciting context in relation to the contemporary interest in spectatorship, space, and the projected image. But what is most interesting about these screenings is that the renewed interest in his films from the ’70s has led to opportunities to exhibit a new body of work that is developed from and extends the investigation of the projection event that characterized films like Line Describing a Cone. New works such as Between You and I and Breath play out an extraordinarily acute archaeology of various threshold states.

At once immersive and analytical, and situated between an experience that is both sculpturally present and immaterial, McCall’s recent work exists only in the present, at the moment of projection, and yet at the same time calls up all kinds of filmic references, previous cultural experiences, and bodily states.

Writing in the ’70s, P. Adams Sitney called Line Describing a Cone “the most brilliant case of an observation on the essentially sculptural quality of every cinematic situation,” and it is a question of the boundary between sculpture and cinema that frames much of what is discussed below. Also key to our conversation is the structural logic of the new work, which draws on the cinematic conventions of the wipe and parallel action. This interview took place the day after McCall’s exhibition Between You and I, curated by Peer, opened at the Round Chapel, a spectacular nineteenth-century nonconformist chapel in Hackney, London.

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Anthony McCall, Between You and I, 2006, pairs of stills at two-minute intervals (reading left to right) during one of the two 16-minute “wipes.”

Graham Ellard Between You and I is based on a convention from cinema, the wipe. How does using a narrative convention like the wipe work in a non-narrative context?

Anthony McCall For me the wipe is a way of opening up sculptural space using a cinematic device. In the installation, what you actually see is two vertical, three-dimensional, more-or-less conical forms made of projected light. The forms appear to be static but are gradually changing. And each form is in fact the fusion of two forms, brought together by the wipe. It’s a technique from the period of classical narrative cinema. It’s rarely used now, except as a self-consciously stylistic device.

Stephen Johnstone What would be an example?

AM In movie editing now, we are mostly accustomed to the transitions from one scene to another being made with an instantaneous cut. The “wipe” was a slower transition where you would actually watch the new scene covering the old. There were various forms of wipe, like the “clock wipe,” where the new shot expanded from a single vertical sliver and then swept around like the rotating hand of a clock; but one of the most common consisted of the incoming shot entering from the left and traveling left to right until the original shot was completely obscured. This transition would usually last no longer than a second.

SJ So the wipe almost describes the passing of time.

AM That was very often how it was used.

SJ Do you think the wipe looks quite clumsy now?

AM Contemporary movies are certainly well beyond needing the wipe as a cue for a change of time or location. But what interests me about the device is that you have two things in play at the same time. And because one event is advancing and the other retreating, the proportion of one to the other is constantly changing. This was all quite suggestive to me because I was searching for a way to maintain two opposing sculptural forms within the same three-dimensional space, to create the sculptural equivalent of “parallel action.” But I was aware that cutting back and forth between two events would be incomprehensible: even if the walls were only made of light, walls cannot just vanish or appear suddenly out of nowhere. Then there was the related problem of speed. In the “elsewhere” of the moving image on a screen, your eyes and your imagination have no trouble rapidly shifting time and place. But when things move fast in real space, your body reacts by rooting itself to the spot—by ceasing to move. Since I was making a sculptural object, predicated on a mobile spectator, this would be self-defeating. But then I realized that if I radically extended the length of the wipe I could create “parallel action” in sculptural terms—in effect, slowing the movement down to the point where visitors could be sure of what was going to change, or at least be sure of the pace at which things would change, so that they would move around the space, at least to start with, as if they were looking at an object with consistent properties. So I took the original wipe duration of one second and extended it here to last 16 minutes. And at the same time I slowed down the movements of the two constituent forms.

SJ Parallel action is another cinematic device for constructing a narrative.

AM Yeah. Usually based on cross-cutting. You cut back and forth repeatedly between the two or more scenes. In early, silent cinema, it was the villains tying the heroine to the tracks, cutting to the locomotive as it barreled along the ravine, cutting to the cowboy on a white horse galloping to the rescue; and then the shots and the action would converge.

GE But unlike parallel action, doesn’t the wipe in Between You and I imply that the two forms exist simultaneously in the same space? And behind the wipe, the action underneath it is—

AM Exactly. There is something hidden at all times.

GE So while the villains are arranging the death of the heroine, the hero is riding to the rescue. But those two actions don’t stop unfolding just because we cut away from them.

AM That’s right. We’re getting representative samples from each of the parallel stories.

GE And the spectator has to put them together.

AM Yes. But Between You and I is something of a hybrid. The wipe entirely contains the two parallel actions and determines what proportion of each you can see at any one moment. The actions themselves consist of an elliptical form that contracts and expands; and a traveling wave that is bisected by a rotating line. But there are two projected forms side by side, not just one; each of them is built from those same two actions, with the wipe determining what combination you will see at any one moment. One form begins as the ellipse, which is gradually replaced by the traveling wave; and the other begins as the traveling wave that is gradually replaced by the ellipse. So at any one moment, within either of the two projected forms during the 16-minute wipe, something is always in the process of being disclosed, or in the process of being hidden. But taking the two forms together, whatever is concealed in one can be found in the other; there is nothing hidden.

SJ That asks the spectator to spend a lot of time with the piece, doesn’t it?

AM Not necessarily. Much of the description so far is of the animated line-drawings and of the cinematic device that controls their disclosure, but what a visitor finds in the dark are simply two enormously tall, quiet, translucent forms made of walls of light that are barely moving. Whatever they see at any moment, sculpturally speaking, is always complete. There is nothing missing. And then if you stay for five or ten minutes, perhaps you will recognize the gradual shifting of these internal volumetric chambers, and perhaps even sense the reciprocity between the two adjacent forms. And if you stay longer still, you may begin to fully grasp the symmetries and repetitions and doublings.

GE You don’t register all of the movement all of the time, but you do register certain kinds of events. Where two lines on the floor intersect, or where one line completely disappears, or where the elliptical form reappears as a tiny sliver at one edge: those key moments declare a kind of drama, a peak of activity. That attunes you to the rest, to what might be far more subtle.

SJ Last night at the opening you could see people watching for those peaks, and they became quite intense, dramatic moments. I’m thinking of when one line seems to slide past another and they barely kiss.

GE As if something’s about to happen.

SJ Those are the moments when you’re aware of the relationship between the opening and closing forms. It’s very narrative-like.

AM And every 16 minutes there is a moment when the constituent forms separate out. Just for that moment we have the elliptical form on one side and the traveling wave with the superimposed rotating line on the other. And then the next wipe begins its advance into each form and the doubling begins again.

GE So there are two projected conical forms; and within those two projections there is a doubling, which is articulated by the wipe, where the incoming form or frame pushes the other out of the way, or overlays on top of the other.

SJ The wipe is almost a mechanical element that pushes tension through the work.

AM Yes, and the form of motion which creates the complexity.

GE There were moments last night when the wave and the ellipse connected up, and the whole thing seemed to begin to turn back on itself. It does get complicated, doesn’t it? But also, at key points, the motion knits these things together again. You can find some of those moments in the stills, where occasionally the separate elements form one continuous line.

GE As you said, at all times, everything is visible.

AM Everything.

SJ It’s just that they’re in different places.

AM They’ve been displaced. You could say they’ve been displaced spatially, but actually they’ve been displaced durationally by 16 minutes.

GE Yes, they’re out of sync.

SJ It’s interesting, if you are looking up at the vertical walls of Between You and I, you don’t really understand the structural decisions that have been made in the same way that you do when you’re looking at the footprint, the image on the floor.

AM Did that weaken the three-dimensional form, do you think?

SJ It does seem to be more like a veil than the more solid plane that you would experience with your horizontal projections. It was really interesting looking through one form to the other. The space used for the exhibition—a de-consecrated church—has a pulpit that you can ascend. I did that and then looked down at the other spectators walking in and out of the projections. From this vantage, you looked through the first piece to the second, and it really did feel like you were looking through a set of diaphanous veils of light.

AM When you look at a second veil of light through a first, they both become brighter at the point of intersection. If you have three, it’s paradoxical: the furthest veil of light is the brightest. It’s an accumulation.

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Anthony McCall, Doubling Back, 2003, Twelfth Minute, Installation view at the 2004 Whitney Biennial. Photo by Hank Graber.

GE There is a significant difference between a vertical piece like this one and a horizontal one like Doubling Back. The difference is the extent to which you can enter them. You can enter the vertical forms of Between You and I completely without interruption, so it seems to emphasize the veils, which are thresholds between the inside and the outside of the work. There’s a sense in which it’s possible for you to be surrounded by them without intercepting or interrupting the projection and so also the form itself. In the horizontal projections, it’s possible for your head to be enclosed by the projected form, but your body will be an interruption.

AM That’s right.

GE To a large extent these vertical projections actually describe enclosed spaces—

AM Chambers.

SJ —that can be inhabited, so you cross the threshold and stand entirely within it, without interrupting the beam anywhere at all. Something that was happening much less, I thought, with Between You and I, was the kind of playfulness that we see in the horizontal pieces, where people create extraordinary forms across the length of the projection by standing in front of the projectors or bobbing up and down in the light beam. In the vertical projections, you can’t stand in front of the projector. People were gathering around the edge of the work or standing inside it.

Something we did notice, something we did ourselves, which I guess is a form of play, was that one of us stood inside and one of us stood outside and we had a conversation through the veil or plane of light. A number of people were saying, “You go in,” and their friends were standing around the perimeter of the projections speaking to them, and there was something about either entering or being on the outside. That was the form of play that the work produced. Whereas in the horizontal pieces, the form of play tends to be about intercepting the beam, and in that context it’s about the apparent solidity of the beam and the way that you can actually manipulate it.

GE What are your feelings about it, Anthony? Do these ideas of horizontal and vertical run in parallel?

AM They do, yes. And that is perhaps because these two very different orientations suggest different approaches to representing the body. The first of the vertical pieces were the Breath series, which I began in 2004. Without quite realizing it, I began to think of them and to refer to them as “standing figures.” The projected drawing had quite literally become the “footprint” on the floor, the real body being above it in three-dimensional space. This way of thinking gradually begged a question about the significance of the horizontal orientation of almost all my earlier pieces. If I was interested in representing the body, did this horizontality signify in any useful way? If the vertical was standing, how might you read the horizontal? Was it lying down? I have been approaching this question in various pieces like Coupling and You and IHorizontal.

GE Would you combine the two orientations?

AM I’ve been considering it. I’ve done some drawings of two-projector installations combining vertical and horizontal, and I’ve also been thinking about in-between states, like projecting at 45 degrees to the vertical.

SJ Do the forms interpenetrate?

AM Some are side by side; in others the forms pass through one another or converge at the floor or at the wall. In a way these are extensions of the ideas that began in 1974 with Long Film for Four Projectors, which was entirely based on interpenetrating planes of light. Projecting downward diagonally from the ceiling is interesting, because what seems to change everything is which surface the drawing ends up on: the floor or the wall.

SJ Would that be a difference between the sculptural and the cinematic in your work?

AM I’ve been tempted to think of the horizontal/vertical orientations as different sides of a cinema/sculpture fault-line, but I’m not sure how useful this will turn out to be. The space that is being created always draws on both. But I suppose that I’m still testing this with the 45-degree projections.

GE One difference, presumably, would be the process of activating the space between the projector and screen with an odorless mist and rendering that cone of line tangible. Unlike the archetypal cinematic experience, which negates that space.

AM Yes, cinema creates a virtual world, a place that you enter with your eyes and your imagination but not with your physical body. My pieces require that your actual body be there in the flesh, in the present. And active.

SJ Does the work intimate the body?

AM I’d like to think so. And even though I didn’t realize it at the time, this possibility began with one of the solid-light films I made in 1974, Cone of Variable Volume. In that piece the projected conical form rhythmically expands and contracts at different speeds. When I looked at it five years ago or so, I realized that the motion of one of its sections looked like breathing. In a later section, where the same motion was considerably faster, it took on an erotic overtone. I was surprised that I’d never noticed this before.

SJ That’s why I said intimate. It doesn’t refer directly to it because you don’t see yourself breathing, so it’s not pictorial.

AM The first works that drew directly on Cone of Variable Volume were the Breath series. They were also my first vertical pieces. Then in early 2005, with Exchange and Coupling, I began to explore how I might combine two unrelated forms within a single sculptural space.

GE An idea of exchange, of social interaction, that’s what’s fundamentally going on in Between You and I and in You and I Horizontal. It’s an attempt to—to what? Is it a suggestion of mutual exchange?

AM There is a group of ideas that seem to be accumulating as I work on these pieces. When we talk about representing the body, we usually have in mind some sort of static visual image. I find it more useful to think of the body less as something you look at and more as a verb, always in motion and constantly undergoing change. Our bodies are a bundle of code built around a clock, and our internal rhythms of sleeping and waking, and our cycles of growing, of maturing, of loving, of fertility, of aging, even our emotional states are connected to it. Then physically, the body is symmetrical; it’s based on pairs, on doubling: it has a front and a back, a left and a right. Finally, I would maintain that an individual body cannot be really understood or described if you treat it as bounded by its skin. Most of our experience is based on pairing with other bodies. Our sense of self is only possible because we are in an almost constant state of mutual exchange with others. Most of the pieces of the last few years have been attempting to describe the state of “between,” the moment of exchange.

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Anthony McCall, Line Describing a Cone 1973, installation view at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s exhibition Into the Light: The Projected Image in American Art 1964-1977, 2001. Photography © Henry Graber, 2002.

GE Going back to what we were saying earlier about play, your work produces quite social spaces. Last night at the opening, there was lots of conversation, pointing things out to others you’re with, and movement around the room. It becomes a situation that seems born of the process that the doubling makes necessary, which is a continuous cross-referencing between what’s happening here and what’s happening there, a back and forth.

AM The footprint of each of the projected forms was about 17 feet across, with a 6-foot space between them. So from one outside edge to the other was about 40 feet. This meant that there was always a distinct “over here” and an “over there” that could only be properly connected by walking. Having tried an earlier version of the piece at a smaller scale, I’m certain that these distances are necessary to enable the social motion you describe.

SJ The projector seemed to float in infinite space, to be just hung in darkness. That produced an amazing, slightly magical spectacle. Do you think that the setting, this extraordinary space that used to be and still is sometimes used as a church, contributes to some suggestion of a kind of celestial light?

AM It might, for some. But these are two projected forms that structurally are addressing one another. They are equal. They each give, and they each take. That seems more secular than celestial. I’ve also been asked if I’m interested in the sublime, and I’m never quite sure how to answer.

SJ Do you think that the suggestion of the sublime limits the work?

AM I have to acknowledge that something is going on when you see those films that I didn’t precisely put there. It is a function of the structure, but it wasn’t my intention. I think it does have a lot to do with why some people find these pieces moving. And so I could hardly complain about it; it’s just that I don’t fully understand it, nor do I feel I have any control over it. If anything, my intentions are humanist: bodies and interactions and exchange are not divine ideas. And I also question whether showing two vertical shafts of light in a church—something that has recognizably been a sacred space—necessarily tilts the experience more toward that reading than any other. A church experience is a lot more than just the architecture. It has to do with the oration, liturgy, music, ritual, vestments, and congregations. Everyone knows why they’re there. So I don’t feel that the church determined how you read the piece at all.

SJ No, strangely, after being in the space for a while, you forgot where you were, because of the nature of the work that you were experiencing. I was suggesting the sublime because of the relationship of a small figure to something overwhelming, and that produces—

AM Fear.

SJ A pleasurable—

AM Pleasurable fear, yes.

SJ That sense of the sublime is a relationship of scale.

AM For me, the sublime carries ideas of awe in the face of unbounded, amorphous space. Perhaps some of these impressions are encouraged by the darkness, the scale, and by the mist, but then surely they’re contradicted, or at least kept in balance by the geometry in the drawing, and the precision of the structure.

SJ Someone we were talking to last night said that it actually feels like a filmic space. Like inhabiting a moment in Star Wars or Close Encounters where the light from the spaceship projects down and illuminates a figure. He suggested that when you went into the enclosure that the projections of light create, it felt very much like you were entering cinematic space itself.

But there is a degree of complexity in the structure that encourages you to leave behind those sorts of references. They’re replaced—and perhaps this has something to do with the work’s escaping the clutch of the sublime—by a more intimate kind of looking that rewards contemplation. Perhaps it has to do with the pace of the projections: they move fast enough for us to appreciate, but not so fast as to root us to the spot and somehow impose themselves on us.

AM Yes, I’d hope for a quiet engagement that involves the visitor’s own movement and thought and careful scrutiny.

GE The loop, even in the abstract, does signify, even from a purely literal point of view: it turns the end into the beginning. But to think of a cycle is to turn a loop into an active part of the work’s structure, rather than just a pragmatic technique of presentation, or a disruption or a contradiction of the work’s structure. The idea of a cycle seems rather like these wipes. It suggests a continuing, simultaneous movement. The cycle reinforces the idea that this will continue; when I leave, it won’t stop. That actually we are only witnessing some kind of ongoing activity.

AM I began using cyclical structure in my “fire” performances and some of my films in the early ’70s. To begin with, it was a way to get around the problem of the “great expectations” of an assembled audience. But cyclical structure has the important effect of creating an open field for those who come to see the works, and looking becomes a kind of sampling. With this new group of works that address the body, the cycle also seems to be an appropriate descriptive device.

SJ But what about the narrative conventions of the 90-minute or two-hour film? That’s not an experience of sampling, it’s an experience that has a very distinct structure that allows you to enter it and then leave with some sense of resolution, some understanding.

GE An analogy that I drew while looking at the work was, given the slow speed of it, of watching the minutes tick away on a clock or of shadows moving across the floor: we recognize movement only by looking away and then looking back.

AM There’s another factor here, the attention span of the viewer. The visitor decides how to engage a piece, and for how long. Each visitor’s sampling of the physical and temporal properties of the projected event is going to be different. This is a more open-ended, more disinterested structure than that of a two-hour movie, which is structured for and presupposes a captive audience.

SJ Does the remarkable quality of the interplay between the haze and the light ever feel like a stumbling block to appreciating or understanding the structural complexities of the work? That is, is there a limit inherent in this spectacular quality, which in art can obscure rather than produce a point of access?

AM That’s a good question. I’ve resisted the spectacle of thick smoke boiling into the light, which is very dramatic and often produces a “look at that!” reaction. That is not something I welcome, because it diverts attention from the measured unfolding of the forms over time. It’s intrusive. I like the new type of fog machine called a hazer, which is able to distribute a mist of even density throughout the space. The mist simply becomes the condition that renders the projected planes of light visible. The only drawback is that this kind of atmosphere can make it quite hard to perceive the curvature of the forms. You can see the curvature when you move, but otherwise they can seem flat. So I now try to calibrate the output of the hazer so that you do regularly glimpse the arrival of the mist as it drifts into the light, so that you see the mist curling around the forms and confirming their three-dimensionality.

GE And does that balancing act with spectacle explain the absence of sound and color?

AM I have experimented with color. I thought for a while that combining one plane of white light and one of color might make possible more complex superimpositions of the forms, where each remained separately legible because of the color difference. But it didn’t work very well. It just produced a kind of sweetness that I disliked. Sound is tricky for different reasons. It throws the balance. Your eyes seem to take a backseat while you listen. Of course, I must remind myself that I always did have sound, which is the sound of the projector, and that operates very much like the drone of certain musical instruments. It’s an underlying sonic state. I felt for a long time that this sub-audible sonic field was integral to the pieces, affording a kind of acoustic privacy for the people watching. The absence of this was one of my objections to digital projection, which has no intrinsic machine noise. But I had forgotten that when you’re absorbed in something there is a murmur provided by the mind. You get wrapped up in your own thoughts, and that is a type of acoustic privacy.

SJ Didn’t you show Line Describing a Cone with sound?

AM Yes, once, a couple of years ago. It was part of a collaboration with the Japanese composer/performer Sachiko M at a film festival in Dundee. What she brought to it was as pared down and as singular as Line Describing a Cone is visually. What she did was strongly spatial, and keyed to my doing a double projection of the film, with the projectors facing opposite directions, and with the second starting when the first was already halfway through. She was working with three high-pitch sine-waves, which are very thin, pure pitches that have no color to them. But as you move around the space, they appear to change. She introduced them one by one into the space over the duration of the projection until toward the end all three pitches were playing. I thought that the fusion of the visual, the spatial and the sonic worked in a very interesting way. (pause)

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Anthony McCall, Between You and I, 2006, tenth minute. Installation at Peer / The Round Chapel, London 2006. Photo by Hugo Glendenning, © Anthony McCall 2006.

GE There’s something we’ve talked about before—it goes back to the idea of slowness and speed: something to do with sculptural space being slow.

AM Yes.

GE And filmic space being a space that produces a kind of anxiety. Is that something that you’re trying to find— a space between—or do you work with both of those elements?

AM I try to set the speed of motion at a threshold between no movement and movement. You recognize that change is underway, but you can tell that it is going to take a while. It reduces the anxiety about what may happen next. And it enables you to really watch change, which is actually a rather rare experience. You, the watcher, become the fastest thing in the room.

SJ But is that what the anxiety is: you’re rooted because you’re unsure of the next development?

AM It seems to be a hard-wired reflex. Perhaps it goes way back to when Homo sapiens were hunting and being hunted for food. Something moving fast could signify danger. I’m speculating about that, but the fact is that when an unexpected fast action happens nearby you immediately stop and wait, to triangulate the danger and to calculate how long it’s going to take before it reaches you. Perhaps some of the pleasure of cinema comes from the fear of that motion.

SJ So the speed we are talking about is the speed of disclosure?

AM Yes. And the speed of disclosure, for me, has to be slow. And that has to do with leaving the spectator with the freedom to move without feeling that they’ll miss something. So the form of disclosure says cinematic but the speed of disclosure says, This is sculptural space.

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Cosmic Objects

Originally published in

BOMB 97, Fall 2006

Featuring interviews with Anthony McCall, Sasha Chavchavadze, Tod Papageorge, Lynne Tillman, Nichole Argo, Steven Shainberg, Amina Claudine Myers, Theresa Rebeck, William Katavolos, Judith Linhares. 

Read the issue
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