PRINT January 2015



Detail of Jennifer West’s Flashlight Filmstrip Projections, 2014, Plexiglas, 35-mm and 70-mm film strips, flashlights. Installation view, Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, OR. From the 2014 Time-Based Art Festival (TBA:14).

IN RECENT DECADES, a handful of artists have displayed a special kink for the place and time of California in the 1970s. Carol Bove, Liz Craft, Doug Aitken, Justin Lowe, Jonah Freeman, and Jeremy Blake, to name but a few, have all reached into the golden nimbus surrounding the years roughly spanning 1967 to 1974 and come back with distilled essences of the forms and thoughts of the American West. Leftist books on wooden shelves, high-flying kites, and psychedelic cowboys have, in their hands, become rich fetish objects implying variously nostalgic, ecstatic, and gothic meanings, if not full-blown epistemologies of lifestyle.

The aptly surnamed Jennifer West is another magus of the California aura. In her sensual, partly abstract, partly imagistic art films, the Topanga-born native has embraced both the process and the product of the ongoing California experiment, taking a distinctly nonconformist approach to materials and techniques—i.e., soaking film in salt water or carrot juice, scratching film with sharks’ teeth—to create electric-hued movies that wouldn’t be out of place at any acid test of the past fifty years or so. In jumpy footage of campfires, nighttime fountains, and surfers, overlaid with splotchy, teeming, streaking skeins of abstraction, her work can channel spirits as various as vintage Ed Ruscha, Bruce Conner, Stan Brakhage, and numerous other paragons of expanded cinema while summoning to mind an idealized viewer who feels like a communal multitude. Seeing her films, one senses the presence of painted bodies powdered in desert dust, a cloud of sun-fried split ends backlit in the projector’s glow.

In her recent work at the 2014 Time-Based Art Festival (TBA:14) in Portland, Oregon, however, West stepped away from the looped beach party of her previous work to chart deeper, cooler currents of experimental-film history. Jarred by the long-anticipated but suddenly imminent death of her chosen medium, celluloid, she decided to commemorate its passing by fabricating a batch of panels from discarded 35-mm and 70-mm film strips. She then hung the panels in floating rectangles in a windowless warehouse room and equipped the audience with flashlights, in effect deputizing them as projectionists of their own expanded cinematic experiences. The result was at once raw and conceptually dense, as stark simplicities of light and color gave way to close scrutiny of the apparatus, and the room’s architecture became something akin to a cinematic petting zoo, a deconstructed Fillmore West light show—all backstage, no band.

Walking the space, beaming stills from a Hollywood western or an underwater film, a Mexican shoot-out, and the TriStar film logo onto the surrounding walls, one could feel many epochs of experimental film collapsing and commingling. It was the ’70s in San Francisco, the ’80s in the East Village, the ’90s in Portland—a manifesto or a eulogy, who could say? The audience stood at the beginning of something or at the end, in Plato’s cave or Plato’s grave, moving ever farther into the endless sunset of the West.

Jon Raymond

Jennifer West, Flashlight Filmstrip Projections, 2014, Plexiglas, 35-mm and 70-mm film strips, flashlights. Installation view, Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, OR. From TBA:14. Photo: Evan La Londe.

I HAVE MADE EIGHTY-ONE FILMS by hand-distressing celluloid, using particular processes that I’ve developed over the years to create cameraless and imagistic films. I worked this way for a long time and took the process in a lot of directions. And then, when I was making some films for a show in 2013, I went to pick up film stock at Kodak, and the warehouse was gone. The doors were locked. They’d moved into this little back alley. That was the first evidence I saw of the effect of the transition from celluloid to digital. After that, I went to my film lab, FotoKem, and they’d laid off their entire film-processing swing shift. And when I went to my old editorial-supply house, Christy’s, same thing—the film culture was gone, a graveyard of editing flatbeds. So that was the moment when I realized, OK, I should do this homage to celluloid. The future of the film strip is unclear.

I was driving from Los Angeles to Seattle, and I e-mailed Kristan Kennedy, a curator at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, and said I wanted to do a project with the celluloid film strip, and she got back to me right away to say yes. So this is something completely new. I’ve made a few film quilts where I’ve saved the cutouts of my films over the years and stitched them together with a sewing machine. But in general I have always digitized the film, so you never saw the strip. For this project, I proposed creating windows lined with film strips and hanging them throughout the cavernous space, and then allowing viewers to walk around and create projections with flashlights. I chose flashlights because they already have a projection lens built into them, and I liked the idea of using the Maglite, this utilitarian object, as the device, so that the viewer could confront the actual film strip in space and have an experience with the art of projection. In a way, I was just going back to something very basic: a kind of giant magic lantern, with the film-strip panels as oversize slides through which one could project.

I wanted to create a way for people to interact with different techniques and histories from the past 150 years. I started with “scratch picture fill”—recycled cast-off film prints from Hollywood. When I was at Christy’s, Jay McLean, a film technician with whom I’ve worked for ten years, was showing me rolls of recycled 35-mm film prints, and said, “Maybe you’d be interested in this.” The large roll had fragments from a robbery/desert-chase/shoot-out film and a Snickers-bar commercial. (These rolls—whether feature films, news, commercials—are remnants of the pre-digital-editing days, when people cut and spliced their films and would sell off the extra film at the end of a job. Each has a thick scratch down the film to protect copyright.) So I bought this roll to repurpose it for the project. I wanted the viewer to have a macro experience of looking at the actual film frames, and then to see the images as detritus from Hollywood or as a magnified, abstract pattern.

Around that time, I went on a trip to Ohio, where there happened to be a show at the Columbus Museum of Art on nineteenth-century, pre-cinema Paris. And I started thinking about the art of projection and looking back on this history—the time of the magic lantern, huge panoramas, camera obscuras, populist spectacles—because that was essentially what I was creating. The exhibition had original zinc puppets that were used in Parisian shadow theaters. There was also a photograph of Loie Fuller, the famous dancer and choreographer known as the “Electric Fairy,” who invented the “serpentine dance.” She became a muse, and her striking image was painted and photographed countless times, but foremost, she was an incredible, influential inventor whose work is essential to the history of the screen and cinema. She created distinctive lighting, costume, prop, and stage techniques where she would appear in darkness in a large, circular silk robe, illuminated by complex lighting designs that would come down from above and up from below the stage. Her costume extended several feet onto the ground, and she developed a technique to use wands extending from her hands to send the billowing fabric up over her head while lit by colored lights. She created sets, danced on mirrors, and used trapdoors and uplighting to effectively become a moving image. She patented a lot of these techniques, including her robe. The show set me on a path to further study this moment right before the invention of cinema.

The Getty Research Institute in LA has a vast collection of pre-cinematic objects and ephemera that you can examine in person. I went and handled many of them—magic lanterns, slides, these incredible anamorphic cone-lens pieces that would create 3-D images. At the Getty, I identified specific phrases from a printed announcement about the magic lantern (A CURIOUS MACHINE) and a motto from an eighteenth-century Dutch cone viewer (EXPECT EVEN BETTER). I printed these phrases along with some current terms about media, such as MAKER, on large sheets of clear film to hang on the panels in the installation. I like that these quotes sound like jargon about media today: “Expect Even Better. The iPhone 6.”

I designed the cinematic installation so there would be twenty-five Plexiglas frames lined with film strips that would appear to be floating in the darkened warehouse space. Each panel would be lined with either 35-mm or 70-mm film strips. In addition to the recycled film, I shot my own 35-mm images of hand-shadow play, results from computer searches for “pre-cinema,” YouTube compilations of the serpentine dance, and other images related to my research, some of which were blown up to 70 mm and handpainted. I also made panels of hand-dyed blank film strips that I printed directly with lips or breasts, or splattered and dripped with dyes. I worked with Vince Roth, the very last 70-mm optical printer in Hollywood and in the world, which made the process even more relevant and urgent.

Once the cinematic installation was devised, I decided it could be “played live” as a choreographed light drawing in space, re-creating Fuller’s serpentine dance with a dancer who had a similar white costume and wands. For two nights there was a live performance inside the installation. I worked with three “flashlight projectionists” and together we projected images of film strips onto the dancer’s flowing robes and the walls to a live score of synthesizer and theremin. The audience stood on the outside of the space watching the projections: history projected back onto the dancer’s billowing robes, mixed with glimpses of hand-printed film strips.

My piece incorporates that continual progression in the whole history of imagemaking—the obsession with lenses, the development of photography, lighting, perspectival changes, projection, optical devices, moving images. It also ends up as a place for projected play. You’ve got your hands. You can make a shadow on the wall.