PRINT January 2010


Bruce McClure preparing to perform Nethergate, 2005, at the 8th International New Media Art festival, Riga, Latvia, August 26, 2006. Photo: Robin Martin.

BRUCE MCCLURE KEEPS A STUDIO at the northernmost tip of Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood, in an industrial enclave a fair walk from the nearest subway. Overhead, the Pulaski Bridge, which connects the borough to Queens, throbs with a constant onrush of vehicles, generating a rhythm that transforms the ambient workday bustle of the surrounding blocks into something like rough background music. Inside, McClure’s studio is a nearly windowless, thick-walled bunker: a good situation for someone who experiments, as he does, with the intricacies of projected light and with elaborate patterns of machine noise not dissimilar to those outside his building.

Today, he has positioned two 16-mm film projectors—the portable, slot-loading variety that graced high school classrooms decades ago—and connected them via a cascade of multicolored cords to an array of hulking, coffee-can-size variable transformers and boxy guitar-effects pedals. The projectors aren’t loaded with full reels of film but with short loops of black emulsion dotted with occasional frames of clear base, and each is fitted out with a different-size lens. Facing the projectors is a smallish roll-down movie screen, about six by eight feet, flanked by a formidable pair of loudspeakers. This is the setup for Cong in Our Gregational Pom-Poms, 2009, one of McClure’s live “projector performances,” as they’ve often been called at the festivals and cinemas that have played host to his work in the past decade.

The room darkened, Pom-Poms starts with both projectors running, their luminance gradually increasing. The mostly opaque loops of celluloid allow only split-second blinks of light to emerge; one projector’s image—a white rectangle of light in the familiar 1.33:1 aspect ratio—is tight in the middle of the screen, the other’s so large that it far exceeds the projection surface and illuminates half the studio, flickering with a slow pom, pom quality reminiscent of an old flashbulb. Due to the projectors’ inherent variations, the recurring frames of light go in and out of sync in a hypnotically arrhythmic strobe, with still images of scratches and bits of dust lingering for milliseconds in the mind after they hit. Even more overwhelming is the audio accompaniment, produced by the loops’ passing over the projectors’ optical sound readers, the sharp alternations of light and dark creating regular intervals of analog noise enhanced by McClure’s effects pedals to resemble something between a chuffing train and a kerranging No Wave guitar riff. The total effect converts the room into an enormous reverberation chamber for both ear and eye, throbbing with mechanical thunder and lightning, eliciting numerous audiovisual illusions that erupt in the spaces between the pom-pom pulses.

The seemingly endless minutes spent in thrall to one of McClure’s performances become both profoundly materialist and transportively idealist: the former because the auditor-spectator cannot but be deeply mindful of the physical fact of the machines themselves as they relentlessly produce their affective oscillations, the latter because such an experience elicits trancelike states of time dilation and near-hallucinogenic euphoria. McClure reorganizes the sensorium across a latticework of mechanical rhythms, shaped on the fly through the manipulation of specific variables that define the named performance as such—for Pom-Poms, guitar pedals, loops with ratios of one clear to twenty-five black frames, a specific arrangement of the screen, 12.5-mm and 70-mm lenses, and the use of transformers to create shifts in brightness. Within these parameters, McClure improvises, extending or truncating the piece’s arc to suit the circumstances of a given venue and occasion.

McClure avoids terming himself an artist (“a word I tend to shy away from, as much as I can, out of some sort of infantile paralysis,” he demurs), preferring instead to be called a performer. Though he has done events in galleries and museums, he operates more in the context of experimental film and, recently, avant-garde music. His training, and former day job, was in architecture, and it was while studying the subject in college in the late ’70s that he made his first film, on Super 8, already gravitating toward abstraction: Eccentric Circles (1978), a silent five-minute animation portraying concentric colored circles of cutout paper growing and receding in the modest frame. During this period he painted in a Minimalist style, and while still a student, he made John Cage’s acquaintance; for a while, the two played chess together regularly.

It was not until the early 1990s that the first mechanical intimations of what would become his projector performances emerged, when McClure made a series of “Roto-Optic” devices consisting of discs painted with colored patterns and mounted on square floor fans that rotated at about 1,200 rpm; viewed under stroboscopic light, they create apparent three-dimensional images. Designed with conscious nods to nineteenth-century phenakistoscopes, to Marcel Duchamp’s film Anemic Cinema (1926) and his motorized Rotoreliefs of the 1930s, and to similar discs used for teaching by high-speed-photography pioneer Harold Edgerton, McClure’s Roto-Optic discs draw from an artistic legacy that is less conceptual than perceptual, playing with the visual illusion of stereo kinesis. They were originally displayed at factory loft parties in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where tired revelers could sit and stare at the apparatuses in the wee, postdance hours of the morn.

Bruce McClure in his Brooklyn studio preparing for an untitled performance at X Initiative, New York, June 28, 2009. Photo: Robin Martin.

Later in the decade, McClure’s filmmaking included work in both Super 8 and 16 mm. On Super 8, he shot notebooklike travelogues such as 3600 Frames (2000), a four-city trip recounted in thousands of single-frame images. His 16-mm works he created without a camera, through handpainting or otherwise altering blank film or appropriated footage. In 1996, he made the first of what he would later dub “ink sneezes,” fully unfurling four-hundred-foot rolls of clear single-perforation 16-mm film in a long hallway, then spraying them with black or colored dyes from an airbrush. The projector reads one edge of ink dots as an optical sound track, producing an oceanic flurry that rises and falls in waves, in relation to the image’s shifting densities. For Dithercumber (1998), McClure began with a length of 16-mm slug (discarded film cut up for use as filler by editors and designated as such by a thick line scraped down the middle) originally part of a print of a jungle caper—The Southern Star (1969)—featuring Ursula Andress and Orson Welles. Further distressing the stock with a variety of sandpapers and rotary tools, McClure obscured not only the image but the sound track as well, producing a softened noise whose fluctuations serve as a muted echo of the film’s now-lost dialogue.

Though initially interested in modifications to the film itself, soon McClure turned to altering the interior of the projector. He performed The Southern Star Passes Without Pressure, 1998, by running more distressed footage from the Andress vehicle silently though a projector after removing its pressure plate, allowing the film to flow past the lens without its sprocket holes catching in the mechanism’s claw. (Many of McClure’s titles engage in wordplay—in this instance, he mischievously suggests a scatological metaphor for the filmstrip.) When McClure focuses on the edge of the projector gate—the threshold between the lamp and the film itself—the image becomes a coruscating blur surrounded by sharp edges, with bits of light shooting beyond its limits, diffracted by the abrasions on the emulsion. A similar method is used in an untitled performance, first enacted in 2006, done with an otherwise unaltered instructional film about the history of textiles, played with the sound on. Here McClure focuses not on the gate but on an approximate average plane of the film’s fluttering surface, causing a colorful sequence of repeating fabric designs to coalesce into a startlingly clear pattern two-thirds of the way into the film’s twenty-minute run.

McClure’s modified-projector performances might prompt comparison to Cage’s compositions for prepared piano. In fact, Cage described something similar to McClure’s work in his 1937 lecture “The Future of Music: Credo,” which McClure first read in the mid-’90s and has cited in program notes. Cage writes that “with a film phonograph”—or optical sound projector—“it is now possible to control the amplitude and frequency [of the sound] and to give to it rhythms within or beyond the reach of the imagination. Given four film phonographs, we can compose and perform a quartet for explosive motor, wind, heartbeat, and landslide.” McClure has spoken of wanting to challenge the “hegemony” of the filmstrip in favor of the projector itself, and by his reading, Cage rethinks the film projector as a versatile instrument, situating it as the center of the performance.

McClure’s most decisive leap, however, came not when he began merely removing parts of the projector, but when he started interpolating custom-made items into the film-shoe assembly, located in the zone between the gate and the lens. This innovation occurred at the same time he began using variable transformers for manual control of the projectors’ luminance and guitar pedals to mix the sound, thus introducing novel elements into three processes of the system’s conventional means of operation. For the series “Crib and Sift,” 2002–2004, for example, McClure uses four projectors modified with plates that obscure different halves of the image—top, bottom, left, or right—each producing a rectangle that can be focused sharp at one edge, soft at the opposite. In some versions of the performance, he overlaps these four fragments into a single image, with hard borders all around. One part of the series, Chiodo, 2003, creates a glowing vortex in the middle; in another, Presepe, 2003, the center recedes into a lightless void. Christmas Tree Stand, 2005, also uses four projectors, into which McClure has inserted plates with circular holes, colored gels, and fragments of metal mesh set at four different angles. When his intervaled loops run through the projectors, an astonishingly three-dimensional globe appears to rotate in impossible directions thanks to the strobing grids created by the mesh inserts. “None of the lights are really moving,” McClure told interviewer Brian Frye in 2006. “They’re just flashing, and the eye—which is slow—gives the brain a ride.”

Bruce McClure in his Brooklyn studio preparing for an untitled performance at X Initiative, New York, June 28, 2009. Photo: Robin Martin.

The heady cognitive illusions fostered by McClure’s work often fall into the category of multistable perception phenomena: images that quaver through various subjective states, resisting any set mental classification. A striking example arises in Barra di Torsione, 2009, which deploys a trio of projectors outfitted with metal plates custom-laser-cut with trapezoidal holes. The three images merge on-screen to form what looks like either the outside of a simple house or the interior of a box-shaped room, reverberating between two modes of false depth. In program notes for a 2002 performance, McClure writes that while his films are “often misconceived as abstract,” they in fact “insist on a tautological obsession with the immediacy of things.”

Since his shift into the housing of the projector itself, McClure has moved out of the booth where projectionists normally operate unseen by audiences. Now, he usually places his equipment on two folding tables, one on top of the other, jury-rigged into a small scaffold, either positioned on the floor of the space or perched within the theater’s seating. Though he’s visible to the audience—the shadow of his flashlight sometimes swinging into view—his procedures remain largely inscrutable due to the internal nature of the projector modifications. Thus, even spectators who are well acquainted with the particulars of 16-mm projection can be perplexed by the effects he achieves—perhaps even more so than those less versed in film technology. McClure thereby produces a remystification of cinema, bringing the experience closer to its Victorian roots in stage magic and pre-Lumière optical instruments meant to elicit astonishment and wonder, but calibrated for a twenty-first-century audience attuned to the aesthetics of noise and distortion.

An untitled Bruce McClure performance at REDCAT, Los Angeles, September 29, 2009.

ARTISTIC PERMUTATIONS of standard film projection have a long history, stretching back at least as far as Abel Gance’s triple-screen epic Napoléon (1927). Postwar, the practice took on a psychedelic, futuristic cast, evolving into an “expanded cinema,” typified by works like Kenneth Anger’s triptych version of Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), Barbara Rubin’s orgiastically double-layered Christmas on Earth (1963), and Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s two-screen Chelsea Girls (1966). In deviating from normal theatrical models, expanded cinema drew out and emphasized film’s performative aspects: During the ’60s, the practice overlapped with Happenings and early rock-concert light shows. Following avant-garde film’s structural-materialist turn, expanded cinema veered into more conceptual play and optical experimentation; sometimes the filmmaker became an actor within the projection itself, as in the film performances of Malcolm Le Grice and Guy Sherwin. Further work continued into the 1990s with figures like Bradley Eros in New York, the Tape-beatles in Iowa City, the collectives silt and Wet Gate in San Francisco, Greg Pope in the UK, and Metamkine in France.

The past decade has seen a surge of activity, now more often referred to as projector performance or live cinema by both dedicated and occasional practitioners. McClure cites Ken Jacobs as an important influence: Jacobs’s stroboscopic, three-dimensional “Nervous System” performances began in the 1970s, later giving way to his related “Nervous Magic Lantern” performances and, finally, to digital-media variations. Among McClure’s most prominent contemporaries are the New York–based duo of Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder, who place relatively quotidian devices in front of the lens such as spray bottles, index cards, and hands to create complex and evocative, at times lyric, lightwork in organic forms. British artists Emma Hart and Benedict Drew combine music and film in works like Untitled Two, 2006, in which a reel of 16-mm celluloid is drawn live through the strings of an electric guitar, plucked by its hundreds of tape splices. Archivist-cum-artist Andrew Lampert distends the act of projection in space and time: For the 2008 version of his Varieties of Slow, 2005, three projectors installed for a month at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York showed the same film at different speeds, with occasional changes to placement, lens type, and other variables introduced by a number of projectionists over the course of the run, as per Lampert’s predetermined instructions.

What performers of this new era share is an interest in real-time image manipulation realized through the whirring mechanics of film projection, creating new experiences with industrial-era devices that the digital age has rendered all but obsolete—an extension of the long-standing materialist fascination with the substance of celluloid, now applied not just to the filmstrip but to the machinery and process of projection itself. These works’ very existence constitutes a critique of both technological innovation and simplistic cine-nostalgia, with parallels in the practices of analog-circuit bending and experimental turntablism among sound artists.

McClure remains all but unique in his surgical reworking of the projector’s interior; the majority of performers work with light as it passes through or after it leaves the lens. Currently, his practice is moving forward in two areas. First, he is placing an increased emphasis on sound: To this end, he has performed as an opening act for industrial-music pioneers Throbbing Gristle and released a vinyl LP of “sound tracks” recorded at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Second, he is expanding his zone of focus beyond the body of the projector into the space of the theater itself. This occurs as an outgrowth of his interventions inside the film-shoe assembly, subverting the normative idea of “good” projection to liberate numerous possible points of focus between lens and bulb. In an untitled performance at X Initiative in New York in June 2009, McClure began using a small, framed scrim, introduced between projectors and screen. Initially focusing his three asynchronous strobes on the scrim, McClure removed it entirely midway through the piece, leaving the beams to flash on the screen in overlapping pulses, the area of focus a mere point in space, now invisible.

Ed Halter is a founder and director of Light Industry in Brooklyn, New York.