I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing
Lucy Raven and I both favor the more social impulses of image making. In the following conversation, which took place over the phone in July, we loosely follow the results of her recent investigations. Her movie China Town (2009), an animation of the production of copper from an open-pit mine in Nevada to the ingot smelters of China, is comprised of thousands of still photos. RPx (2012) is an ongoing collection of projection-calibration film and video loops. While an earlier version of RPx was shown at the Whitney Biennial, its most recent iteration opens in September at the Hammer Museum. In between talking about these projects, we also revisit sites which I coproduced at one time in one form or another: Orchard, the cooperative gallery that ran from 2005 to 2008; the One-Minute Film Festival, an annual barn party held from 2003 to 2012; and the Wexner Center’s Art & Technology lab. Moving-image technology and culture are ever changing, and, consequently, its artists are ever recovering fast-disappearing tools and languages (and recovering from their disappearances too).
After China Town was complete, Raven headed to Mumbai to see the animators transform American 2-D features into 3-D releases. The point was not to chase down her materials but to understand our current landscape: mined, migrated, and represented. In an age of visual “extinction” (her term), in which digital excesses form layers of sediment over what was previously projected and now lies buried beneath, Lucy is an intrepid explorer. In India, she saw bas-reliefs such as those at Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu, but nowhere is dimensional depth put to better use than in the frame-by-frame shading for Hollywood’s latest rereleases carried out just down the road. We didn’t get to talk about the reliefs; she has done so elsewhere already and is preparing to do so again in one of her illustrated lecture-performances as part of her show at the Hammer. Raven links the reliefs to 3-D movies in this form: produced, experienced, and given their meaning en masse, they are also a craft’s handwork. Looking past the temples of cinema and the gods, she attends to the effect of this gesture by human hands, the only part of us that can represent itself, whether in stone or pixels.
— Jason Simon
Jason Simon We met when I was gallery sitting at Orchard and you came in when you were about to start a residency at the Wexner Center.
Lucy Raven You had curated the show; it was called Having Been Described in Words and was about the Wexner Center’s curator Bill Horrigan. You had this booklet with his collected writings available for free—they were the organizing principle of the show. I didn’t know who you were or that you had started the Art & Tech program at the Wexner. I wandered to the back and you asked, “Do you have any questions?” and I said, “Yeah, do you have a bathroom?”
JS Then we talked for a while. And we made a follow-up date to watch your rough cut of China Town, about global copper. I’d never seen anything quite like it: rapid stills with live-action sound. I had no clue that your technique evolved from hand-drawn animations. I was looking at it as a decomposition of video rather than as an extension of animation. It wasn’t until one of your animations ended up in the One-Minute Film Festival that I saw your previous work.
LR You were probably like, What!?
JS (laughter) Yeah, I didn’t expect a 30-second pencil portrait of Jimmy Stewart.
LR That was Or Was It the Other Way Around?—the title actually comes from a line in Sans Soleil, where Chris Marker revisits locations in San Francisco that were obsessions of Jimmy Stewart’s in Vertigo. Between 2006 and 2009, while working on China Town, when I wasn’t in Nevada or in China or in Columbus, Ohio, editing at the Wexner, I explored tangents that had come up in the making of the piece—one of them was this ongoing theme of vertigo. That was the sensation of looking into a giant open-pit copper mine, which looked like a Dantean corkscrew being twisted into the center of the earth, and thinking about the different sorts of time exposed: the geologic time for the rock to form; the 100 plus years since the mine opened, and its tremendous history of booms and busts; the current 24-7 work cycle, which is divided into 12-hour shifts; and all this in service of the constantly fluctuating price of copper, which is based on futures. The animation that I sent to you is the moment in Vertigo when Scottie realizes that Judy is really Madeleine. In the film, she escapes death only to die again. Marker calls this the inability to escape time.
JS Hand-drawn animation reads now as a very personal way to get drawing onto film and onto the screen, but it also has this connection to a bigger set of questions around 3-D movies that you’re working on: depersonalized and digital labor.
LR Well, that certainly wasn’t something I was thinking about at the time I made that piece, but these underlying concerns kept arising in different ways. Converting films shot in 2-D to stereoscopic 3-D, which is the process I’ve been researching, is very much about using drawing techniques to animate photographic images and put them into a virtual three-dimensional space.
JS My understanding is that you are looking at two tracks. One is about a new round of industry investment in 3-D, with a globalized labor pool of animators filling in or shading or multiplying Hollywood images. And the other involves looking at 3-D as a history of perceptual investigations, from early studio directors to more experimental cinemas to contemporary ideas about how our brains work.
LR That’s right. Today, 3-D films are made two ways. One is the old-fashioned way: shooting with two cameras. The other is to shoot normally, with one camera, and convert the film to stereoscopic 3-D in postproduction. The process happens in a global pipeline that utilizes animators and technicians from around the world, all of them working on fragments of the same film. The workflow is a painstaking frame-by-frame process—it’s digital, but also quite artisanal in that the work is done by hand, a pixel at a time. I’ve been focusing on a studio in LA that works with an outpost in Mumbai. They’ll often work together on just one part of a particular film’s conversion to 3-D; the rest is outsourced to other postproduction studios. From opposite sides of the world, an illusion of depth is created.
JS As a side question: Did you ever find that studios were investing in 3-D movies because they are less pirateable?
LR That’s part of it, I think. The conversion processes themselves are quite closely guarded as well. Each company has its own secret sauce.
JS Have you come across Serge Bromberg, a historian who runs Lobster Films?
LR No, I don’t know him.
JS He restores Georges Méliès films, which, it turns out, were massively pirated in the American market. As soon as Méliès released a film in France it would get pirated and released in the US. So, in order to fight the pirates, Méliès filmed with two cameras side-by-side.
LR Oh, I have heard about this. Keep going.
JS That way he could print from a negative in France and in the US at the same time. So Bromberg has been able to match up the negatives for a couple of Méliès films and do 3-D screenings.
LR That’s amazing. Basically every time we’ve seen a 3-D craze, it’s been during a decline in box office sales: first around the invention of TV in ’53, then with VHS in the ’80s, and today with Internet streaming. It’s a way of getting people into theaters since, so far, home-entertainment systems can’t replicate the 3-D, though that seems on the brink of changing.
JS What was the sequence for you between the research into 3-D and the research into the projection-system test patterns, which seems to have been a concurrent project? Did one find you tripping over the other?
LR They were different tangents that extended from a few formal questions I had as I was finishing China Town. I’d begun to investigate motion capture technologies for film in Los Angeles, and I was confronted right away with the fact that the process was often split between Hollywood and India. Characters would be created in the States using motion capture, and the backdrops and landscapes they appeared in were being created in Photoshop in studios in India. This is also when I realized that many of the 3-D films being produced today were originally shot in 2-D, and converted to stereoscopic 3-D in postproduction, also in India. On the heels of China Town, in which raw resources from the American West were being sent to a developing country for their own industrial revolution, here was another, albeit more mediated, example of the American landscape being exported for reconstitution overseas. I became especially interested in the production of the illusion of depth within these landscapes via stereoscopic 3-D—if you’re converting a 2-D film this means the digital creation of a synthetic second-eye view. How we see stereo images, and how we might see them better, is a huge aspect of how these films are made. This led me to projection test charts, which are run on a film loop and are used to calibrate a projector before the real film is loaded up. I started out looking at 3-D charts, but I became interested in the history of these patterns as images that you’re not meant to see but which are aimed at making you see better. They have been used since the early days of film and tell a story in their own right.
JS And these technological rhymes were also in your installation in the Greater New York show at MoMA PS1.
LR Alongside China Town I showed a ten-minute video that I made for public access television, which aired originally on channel 23 in upstate New York. It’s a public access service announcement about the then imminent switchover from analog to digital TV, the resultant change in aspect ratio, and how the gradual move from cable to satellite distribution undoes the funding support for public access. The focus of that piece is how we receive images in the home. Whereas with the 3-D and the test-patterns project, I’m interested in how we perceive images collectively—in this case, in a movie theater—and how changing photographic technologies, carried out via fragmented pools of labor around the world, are shifting image standards and the way we see.
JS I love the way that leads you back to the projection booth, which is my all-time favorite space in the world.
LR Did you work as a projectionist at some point?
JS I didn’t work as a projectionist but I’ve projected a lot of movies.
LR And, of course, you did the One-Minute Film Festival.
JS Right, but I think the projection booth is kind of a perfect space. There’s an accumulation of film history there because film projectionists are often pack rats. It’s also been described as both inside and outside the spectacle, where the pleasure is optional. You’re hovering on the edge of being swept up in the movie, beside the machine.
LR When I realized that the test films and charts I was interested in seeing more of weren’t archived in any one place, I began reaching out to projectionists. Part of the pleasure of this project has been meeting different projectionists and going to their spaces. With the ones who have fragments of these test loops, there’s always this shelf or this jar or canister that a lot of the stuff has been thrown into. They never bothered to throw it away, often because they’re interested in these images too.
JS Have you tried to go to manufacturers? A lot of the charts I saw in the work were made by Arri, Century, Schneider, or Kodak.
LR I’ve started going to labs and trying to contact manufacturers—there’s still a lot to do. When I realized I was going to make a piece with these charts for the Whitney Biennial, I knew I would still be very much in the midst of locating and scanning images, a process I imagine will be ongoing. So I ended up deciding on an open form for the piece.
JS And that involves a randomized playback of the test patterns?
LR Well, I called the piece RPx, after RP40, the most common chart made by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, the standards body for the motion picture industry. RP stands for “recommended practices,” and, in my piece, x refers to the number of patterns included in any given iteration of the piece, which, as my archiving of the patterns continues, can expand or contract or be shown in different ways depending on the context. At the Whitney the images ran off of a program that my friend Jesse Stiles made for me; it randomizes the images to sonic test tones, which are the aural equivalent of the patterns meant to calibrate the sound system of a theater. At the Hammer Museum in LA, I’m producing a quite different iteration of the piece. It will be shown as a 35 mm–film installation and the sequencing is much faster. Also, since it’s on film, the sequence is necessarily set. These test patterns are all standards of their time. At the Whitney, the piece was projected in HD—the art-world standard for the moving image. In LA, it’ll conform to the Hollywood standard: 35 mm.
JS I have a feeling that the test patterns in RPx are related to filmmakers in the ’70s using film-processing lab calibration footage: “China Girls,” with portraits of women next to color test charts to show flesh tones. Owen Land, Morgan Fisher, and Paul Sharits all come to mind, with film images that defy film logic by insisting on their material function. It’s this kind of structural- or materialist-cinema history that I associate with the calibration material you’ve collected. But that’s from an avant-garde moment that’s really circumscribed now. I guess it’s being reinvestigated, but it seems very isolated historically.
LR Why do you think that is?
JS Well, it’s complicated. I think recently there’s been this huge rush to reinscribe these filmmakers within the art world and within the art world’s economy, which is a fantastically double-edged thing. Money that had never been within sniffing distance of this film world suddenly was invested in its history, but in a very selective way. Absent is the idea that you can have a genuinely independent, alternative media culture that was somehow self-sustaining, self-validating, and medium specific. So the price may be the original intent and economies of that film culture.
LR When you say “medium specific,” do you mean film world versus art world, or do you mean in regard to the materiality of film or video?
JS Well, both. They go together. The media scholar and writer Cynthia Chris and I have been looking at this in relation to legacy video-distribution questions.
LR We’ve discussed this before; I’m glad you brought it up.
JS I saw that China Town is now distributed by the Video Data Bank. Was it an easy decision to have them take that piece?
LR Paul Chan put me in touch with the Video Data Bank shortly after I finished the piece. That seemed like an easy decision, and they’ve been great to work with. But in the last year or so, because of institutional interest in purchasing China Town, I decided to edition it. I had never made a long movie, so all of this stuff has been new to me. Since I don’t have a gallery, I was negotiating this on my own and trying to figure out ways to do it. My understanding was that you could either go the distribution route or you could do limited-edition sales. We worked out an amendment to my contract with Video Data Bank allowing for both options—everyone is okay with it, but it seems like a temporary solution that they will have to reconsider over and over as more artists find themselves in this position.
JS I went through a similar thing with my video Vera (2003), and I came up with a way to deal with that situation.
LR I would love to hear what it is.
JS The problem is that everybody is reinventing the wheel on every project. Archival sales are important for the survival of Electronic Arts Intermix and Video Data Bank; it’s their bread and butter. When they charge $600 or $1,000 for producing a DigiBeta, or whatever they’re calling archival standards at the moment, their standard contract is for the life of the tape. So they’re selling the tape as an object with the function of an analog master that has a limited life span. Now we’ve gone back to them and said it can’t be for the life of the tape because these institutions are taking them into their collections, so they have to be able to treat them as they would any other object in terms of preservation and loans. But that means that the distributor loses that archival-tape sale. So I think it has to go from selling the object to selling a license. What gets editioned then is the license that comes with the work, not the work itself. That license means that the institution can copy and do whatever else they need to preserve it; they can loan it; they can make publicity material from it; and, if it’s a private collection, they can also resell it. The price of that license is determined by the artist or the gallery. The distributor gets their archival-tape price for providing the material, and you get the difference between the archival-tape price and whatever price you or your gallery set for the work. This is closer to what some Europeans do.
LR The more I spend time with archivists, the more I realize that there no longer is a stable archival medium. You have to assume that everything that gets made now is going to be migrated. In that sense, editioning the license makes a lot of sense.
JS It’s an important moment right now because artists don’t realize how much they are creating the standards. And most importantly, the license can guarantee the continued distribution, under the nonprofit model, to schools, festivals, libraries, single screenings, etcetera. The last piece of the puzzle is to make the contracts coming from the museums and collections conform to the license, and not the other way around. Otherwise, the museums want everything, like to be their own UbuWebs, providing all this content online with less of an eye toward the intended experience of the work that they’ve agreed to steward. That’s also a problem for the distributors.
LR The traditional economies of film are a little more transparent, right? Like at the movie theater, you buy a ticket, and you have a sense of the way film production happens. But that whole apparatus is invisible in an art context. I’ve had the experience of entering a gallery or a museum showing a work with such high-end production that I wondered, How did this happen?
JS It’s a hydra. It’s going in a million different directions at once. It’s true in general that this great level of visibility is really artist driven. Museums and galleries would not be doing this of their own accord—they wouldn’t have every other space be a black box. At the same time, artists now are doing it without an infrastructure. The distribution and validation networks evolved in the ’70s and ’80s out of a university market. What we call experimental media culture is an invention of pedagogy and would not have existed without university-library budgets. Now if you want to watch movies, it’s never been better—you can see a million amazing things all the time. But on the other hand, everybody is reinventing the wheel every day with no common structure and no royalty income. So there is this wish to understand the conditions that we’re working under which leads people to look at past historical models.
LR Yeah, I agree. There’s also an isolation among people making work who could possibly share resources. A collective sensibility has arisen more in the viewing than in the production of the pieces, but I can imagine that same energy expanding out into realms of production as well.
JS But where do you see a need? The assumption is that the technology just gets better and smaller and cheaper every day.
LR It depends on what sort of work we’re talking about. There’s work that one person can make pretty easily, yet there are also more and more artists making longer work, narrative and not—half-feature length up to feature-length—that would benefit from even just a skeleton crew. That’s one thing that the Wexner Center does from the editing end, but that’s a unique model.
JS The Wexner is so important and unique because they have done what no other institution has been prepared to do: commit to staff salaries for editors. No other place actually pays for these amazing editors to be there to work with artists. A lot of places will put some hardware in a room and call what they offer a residency.
LR Film was the more social model; you really couldn’t do it alone. Now you’re able to produce and watch and upload and download something all basically from the same space in your house, and on the same machine. A lot of people, myself included, could benefit from larger production teams at times, with certain projects.
JS This is a segue to the great Bump City project that you and Alex [Abramovich] created for the Oakland Museum of California. It falls perfectly into a certain model of what video and the Internet are supposed to be doing together right now.
LR It’s funny, I have no idea what those videos are. They’re not art, really.
JS It’s massively old school, in terms of Portapak video in the community. That was the signature of video in the ’70s, and I’ve got the vintage literature to prove it! Was Bump City a program that existed before you and Alex got involved with the Oakland Museum, or are the videos in it entirely the result of your and Alex’s involvement with the museum?
LR Yeah, the latter. We came up with the idea at the tail end of a three-year grant they had to commission artists to create content for a site called the Oakland Standard, which is part of their larger website.
JS So it’s about you finding out about your adopted city of Oakland?
LR That’s right. I mean, we were doing research already, because we moved here for a book that Alex is writing about the city. We kept having ideas for joint projects that we didn’t have a form for. We told the museum that each piece we’d do would address one question about our shared history in the East Bay. Our series of 16 video portraits from Occupy Oakland was the first entry in the series and turned into a pretty serious endeavor. The whole idea, though, actually started after we’d heard the stop-action animator Phil Tippett talk at the Pacific Film Archive before showing Starship Troopers—one of our favorite movies, which he made the bugs for. Tippett, who lives in Berkeley, invented Jabba the Hutt and animated the AT-AT Imperial Walkers in The Empire Strikes Back; he’s legendary in the industry. Back in the early ’90s, he had just finished all the dinosaurs for Jurassic Park when Spielberg ran the results of some early CGI tests he was hoping to use for crowd shots of dinosaurs. Spielberg was amazed at how convincing they were and decided, midway through production, to shift the entire project to CGI. Tippett rather famously—because Spielberg gave the line to Jeff Goldblum in the film—said, “I think I’m extinct,” and fell into a deep depression. But Spielberg made him the animation supervisor of the film, and he went on to reinvent his studio to operate entirely digitally. We ran into him at the local market a couple of weeks after the program and wanted to talk with him about his work. For Bump City, we ended up doing a six-video post with text about his ongoing passion project, a 20-years-in-the-making stop-action epic called Mad God, which he shoots in a studio down the street from his quite successful digital-animation studio.
JS My sense is that video blogs are a bit of a banal, home-movie thing, but in Bump City the stakes are different: you’re marrying this museum project with a newsreel project—an essayistic newsreel in the form of a video blog. The scale of the ambition is a little bit different too, especially with the Occupy video.
LR I guess that’s what I mean. I haven’t had any language to describe it formally except as a video blog. It was a constrained production schedule because we wanted to launch the Occupy portraits on May 1, May Day, the National Day of Action. We started in late March, so we had less than a month and a half.
JS It’s very nice in the context of looking at a bunch of your stuff.
LR I learned a lot; it was sort of great to have this little miniproduction studio. You know, I made this audio magazine a long time ago with Rebecca Gates; it was called The Relay Project. We only put out one issue, which we worked on for a couple of years. Then we made half of the second issue, which we never put out. On that issue is this track with Walter Cronkite that I’d forgotten about but listened to again the other day. It was shortly after the Iraq War had started, and one of the things he said is that we have the ability now to make instant newsreel documentaries—to take what happened during the day and show it at night—but we don’t do it.
JS There’s a wish for technology and the work at hand to meet through you, and sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. For filmmakers in general, I feel like that’s always there.
LR That desire is in your work. You’ve got this very specific interest in how work is made at a structural level and also what the conditions we make work under could be.
JS Because I’ve been doing this research about distribution or the One-Minute Film Festival? I guess in my last show, about the former curator of the MoMA Film Stills Archive, my actual goal was to tell the story of her daily working life.
LR Yes, but also in the structures you’ve put in place for others to make work, like the Wexner Center residency and the three-year artist-run project that was the Orchard gallery.
JS I’m a bit of a party planner. I always feel like there has to be an explicit connection between what’s getting produced and the conditions that it’s happening under. It goes back to this materialist aesthetic. Sometimes I call myself a vulgar materialist.
LR What do you mean by that?
JS I can never stop myself from doing these reflexive gestures that make the thing itself as apparent as possible—whatever the thing is. It’s connected to your test patterns. I think of appropriation art as being very fragile and dependent upon this other way of looking—this ability to be mystified by banal production, where if you look at it long enough, it reveals itself. But that is a fragile procedure and an appropriationist aesthetic makes it even more fragile. It’s the opposite of how people think about appropriation, like a readymade as this grossly anomalous presence. I see it more as an attempt to stake everything on a shifted perception. It’s a vocabulary that I’m stuck with, so I’ll balance that with creating the environment or context in which a lot of stuff can happen. Otherwise I’ll look lazy.
LR Ha! I tend to think about displacement as a sculptural strategy, but is it a term you think relates to appropriation?
JS That’s definitely part of it. You take something and you put it into a different context so it has to be seen differently, and that ends up changing the context as well. It reminds me that you’re looking at getting big projectors installed for the next RPx piece, right? In the sketch you showed me for the new iteration of RPx, I took the not-randomized pattern of the charts to be the articulating factor; patterns and forms and logos are getting flashed in this very rhythmic way. Was there a rhythmic pausing that was happening? I felt like patterns were being inscribed with time.
LR Yes, they’re running on a pattern that’s based on the one-frame duration of each image but scales up and down in cycles.
JS So there was a game around pattern recognition, where the vocabulary was about the history of a technology. Seeing all of these projection standards also raised the question of how we are going to continue producing the cinematic experience, with less and less collective watching. And this was inscribed in my eyeballs; I’ve been bringing it back to my own little private viewing experience. It’s that old idea that what we see is really being projected from our eyes.
LR Running them so quickly undoes their original use, in which you’d use only one of these patterns, depending on the projector, run on a one-frame loop, until you’re able to make the proper adjustments to the focus, the steadiness, the aspect ratio, etcetera.
JS When you say one frame loop, it’s not literally a loop, right? They’re just taking a single frame like a slide and putting it in the gate?
LR No. It’s like a ten-foot loop of the same single image repeated on every frame. In the installation at the Hammer, you’ll see the film run on a loop, too, only longer and with a collection of images, rather than just one. But through the single-framing animation pattern, I hope the film will retain a memory of the way these patterns are actually used. They’re workhorse images, used to the point of exhaustion—until a loop breaks, or the machine they’re meant to calibrate becomes obsolete.
Originally published in
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee