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The Velvet Light Trap 54 (2004) 65-75

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An Interview with Anthony McCall

From 1973 to 1975 Anthony McCall produced a series of films that challenged the filmic materialism exemplified by so-called structural film and high modernism's ethic of medium-specificity with which those works were associated. The best known of these is Line Describing a Cone (1973), which rejected two-dimensionality, typically taken to be a defining characteristic of film art by advocates of medium-specificity, for a new kind of film-viewing experience.1 McCall described the film this way in a 1974 statement:

Line Describing a Cone is what I term a solid light film. It deals with the projector beam itself, rather than treating the light beam as a mere carrier of coded information, which is decoded when it strikes a flat surface. The viewer watches the film by standing with his or her back toward what would normally be the screen, and looking along the beam toward the projector itself. The film begins as a coherent pencil of light, like a laser beam, and develops through thirty minutes into a complete, hollow cone.2

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Figure 1
Line Describing a Cone (1973), projected at the Whitney Museum exhibition Into the Light: The Projected Image in American Art, 1964-1977, 2002. Photo © Henry Graber, 2002.

Line Describing a Cone, along with the other "projector beam" films that followed in the next two years (including Conical Solid, Cone of Variable Volume, and Long Film for Four Projectors), crystallized the complexities that surround film's use within the avant-garde. McCall presented the film as a meditation on the essential properties of cinema but jettisoned what seemed to be an essential material element—the screen. The film reduces cinema to an essence (projected light), but this reduction, ironically enough, radically expands the field of possible cinematic practice, since it conceives of cinema in three dimensions rather than two. Avant-garde film scholar P. Adams Sitney suggested another paradoxical quality of Line Describing a Cone: "I consider it the most brilliant case of an observation on the essentially sculptural quality of every cinematic situation."3 Thus, this model of filmic specificity explored aesthetic terrain normally thought to be the province of another art form.

McCall's paradoxical film practice culminated in 1975 with Long Film for Ambient Light, a "film" that used no film, camera, projector, or screen but consisted solely of an empty Manhattan loft illuminated during the day by windows covered with diffusion paper and at night by a lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. During the twenty-four-hour duration of this "film," spectators could come and go as they pleased, spending as much or as little [End Page 65] time "in the film" as they liked. Reconceiving cinema as essentially the modulation of light in space and time, McCall pried it loose from the material limits of the film medium without detaching it from the artistic tradition that, to paraphrase Rosalind Krauss, had been "encoded" in that medium for decades.4 Long Film for Ambient Light questioned not only the assumptions of filmic medium-specificity but the very line dividing temporal and atemporal art underpinning those assumptions: to McCall's way of thinking, cinema could be sculptural insofar as it occupied three dimensions, while sculpture, like cinema, was necessarily a temporal art insofar as the contemplation of sculpture took time.5

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Figure 2
Long Film for Ambient Light (1975). Installation view, 2:00 P.M., June 18, 1975, at the Idea Warehouse, New York. Photo © Anthony McCall, 1975.

Adapting a term initially coined by the avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs, I have called work like Line Describing a Cone and Long Film for Ambient Light "paracinema."6 The term denotes experimental "films" that reject one or all of the material elements of the film medium but that nevertheless are meant to retain their identity and their meaning as films. The concept of a nonfilmic cinema attempts to account for works of art that engage ideas of...


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