LUX: When Line Becomes Narrative

Lux Artists’ Moving Image: Writer in Residence 2014

The following three articles were written as a part of my recent residency at Lux.

Print Checking as Criticism

When the artist film is returned it is placed upon a shelf and there it waits: Z820, within a protective metal canister, patient and comfortable in a cool, dry, dehumidified archive. These conditions ensure film Z820 - amongst others - does not get damaged while waiting. None of that particularly matters. All that matters is upon my arrival there is a film, in this instance it happened to be film Z820. Z820 is a favourite of mine but that doesn’t matter either.

Carefully threading the film through the spools of the Research Technology Incorporated editing table (RTI) I become aware of the materiality of the 16mm film. In this state film Z820 loses its identification completely becoming a delicate ribbon woven through a clunk of a machine. The head of the film responds to touch; the mark of other handlers left in the form of fingerprints. It is safe to touch these parts, they are purposefully tough and will not be seen by the viewer. This is the beginning of the process of print checking: the making sure that the films have not deteriorated in their condition since the previous loan. Played perhaps as a one off, perhaps looped in a gallery space throughout the day, wear and tear is permitted as it is a direct consequence of the materiality of the artist film. The only exception to this rule comes from the digital era, wherein repetition refuses to deteriorate the film as the film is immaterial.

When checking an artist film for damage the artist film is no longer the subject of your gaze, instead its condition after subjection to projectionists, curators, art fans and other print checkers. The content is a discourse between the print checker’s gaze, any marks, scratches, visible/audible damage or interceptions and the object itself. My attention caught between my love of the man shouting into a microphone on the edge of a field in the middle of Letchmore Heath, about fifteen miles away from the place I was sat, and how to grade a film with mild to more pronounced tramlines and occasional dirt. Myself amongst a cacophony of previous print checkers, all arguing their grading on a form stuck to the inside of the film’s protective canister. Film Z820: (3)

Grade (1): tip-top, brand new and undamaged. Grade (5): completely unplayable and demanding immediate attention else CANNOT BE LOANED OUT! The grade is subjective despite there being a clear set of objective rules to follow. On film Z944 the grades differ between (2), (3) and (4); there is an argument taking place on the grading form. Damage is intentional (2). Damage is NOT intentional (4)!!! Damage is a trace of the artist’s unusual process, some pronounced TLs, (3). Serious dirt, TLs and scratches throughout, fading in places – probs seen better days, (4). Narrative added by the trace of artist whose medium demands/method of production requires hands on approach: FILM NOT ACTUALLY DAMAGED: it is a part of the print: (2)!

All of this passed me by as I grappled between watching the films and looking for damages, until alongside my checking notes I scrawled: When does a line become a narrative (in reference to Z17 (4)). A series of lines flick black and yellowish white across the RTI’s screen approximately 15cm x 10cm; it was a rhetorical question I wrote in order to get me thinking about what I was looking at. No sooner had I wrote this my eye became drawn to some thickening tramlines to the right of the screen. This is how I came to reflect upon my experiences so far, reasoning that the difficulty in watching these films comes through the tension between watching and looking; between repetition and deterioration; between removal and context. How does one begin to talk about these films? Does the mark become a part of a material narrative? It strikes me as analogous to the crisis of the art critic, whose place is suddenly overwhelmed; the question remarked over and over being: what can I say?

I will be exploring these tensions through a series of posts here on LUX, using the role of the print checker as a form of criticism; hoping to develop a criticism of criticism itself through my own practice of art writing, blurring the boundaries between watching and looking, fiction and truth, temporality and spatiality and repetition of medium.

The Mark as Narrative

Repetition, deterioration and destiny

Damage to the film occurs due to repetition of play, it is the job of the print checker to assess this damage. The mark of each handler, of each machine it runs through and of each venue screening it has its own impact to a film’s deterioration. Even the eyes of the viewer and the words chosen to describe add to the wearing of the film just as each spool, each finger and each bulb impacts – marginally or devastatingly - its future condition; how it is viewed and how it is perceived. The content of the film, its meaning and condition are all subject to time, whether stored away in the archive – exact temperature, perfect light, sealed in a protective container – or being screened in a prestigious institution, the destiny of the film is the same: its eventual deterioration. But with that deterioration is a history and a journey which creates an identity parallel to the artist film itself; both as separate and a part of.

Why do you Exist?

Y587 (4) opens out from Camden Arts Centre to curator to admin staff to something. Something happened just there and I hit the RTI's stop button and manually rewind the film to the point; the exact point: a frame with a devastating flaw. Her face. It is burnt out for the duration of one single frame - just one. And my first thought: this must be intentional. If not by the artist then by someone, someone has defaced this film. Who would do that to a person's face?

  1. A vindictive projectionist. The woman is one the projectionist had a great desire for, he thought he’d seen the last of her but here she is. Running through his projector. Upon seeing her face large he took it in great fury, stopped the film and stubbed his cigarette out on her in his aggro. (Because it is the size of a cigarette end). And of course this must have happened many years ago, in the 70’s when indoor smoking was ok, when the film was still fresh, as was his hurt, as was this permanent scar within the film.

  2. This was on purpose. The artist did it. The film is less than an eighth through. Sit it out, watch carefully and wait for it to occur again. Frame after frame pass and there is no further interruption other than slight scratches and dirt. But I may have missed it. I may have become engrossed and it passed me by and if this is the case then perhaps one ought to question the artist’s intention in including burnt frames in the first place. What can it mean? Some sort of inner destruction to the outer film? Some kind of something unseen? Subliminal? Unknown? Nothing?

  3. A print checker jammed the thing in the projector and it remained there for a mere second, because that’s all it takes to accidently burn a frame against a bulb. The smell of vinegar. This possibility doesn’t rule out other culprits, it could as easily have been a projectionist or machine error. Something jammed it. This is the most likely reason. It’s barely noticeable. Gone by in less than a second. Not too much to be concerned about. By now the film has played three quarters of the way through. I stop and rewind manually.

The inner space of the film is London; because you can’t escape it, even if you’re not there you can’t. Splice. It is everywhere and everywhere else will always negate it as overrated, else strive to compete with it, but now they are talking about the moon and the man who is going to land there for the first time and a few severe scratches disfigure the faces of some 60’s hipsters for the duration of one single frame and I wonder if this has something to do with the earlier mark. No. This is the condition of the print itself and has nothing to do with the content. Then again, the film (material) allows the film (subject) to be, therefore how can it be ignored? It is subjectile in relation and one cannot be without the other; its material goes mostly unnoticed but definitively imposes its presence as the mark, a reminder of its long running participation.

Objective Damage

Once the film has been wound carefully through the spools of the RTI the start button is pressed and there is a degree of anticipation as exposed frames reveal their colourings to the left of the small screen before hitting the projector’s light and becoming visible as a definite, readable image. From the left then across the top then immediately down to the right, into the light and then down through a series of spools, which tauten the film. Finally the mechanism winds the film onto a larger spool, gathering itself there until it is ready to be rewound. At all these points the film is subjected to potential or definite (although slight) damage by surrounding elements produced by light, dust, machine and human. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3 and I see the film approaching to the left, it is red. It hits the light: “Prelude”.

There is a man in a hammock being held and kissed by a gypsy girl. His subconscious is dancing around much like the warped film containing the image. X106 (4) is damaged. Beneath the static of the film a mono soundtrack waves out of pitch, steadies itself back into then out of then into then out of, on going until the warped film itself becomes stable. As the film drifts inside and outside of itself - pulsating image, waving soundtrack, unsteady film, flickering dirt - my attention too shifts between watching the film oscillate across the top of the screen and the images within. It is a shame because X106 has such an untarnished centre; it will survive to see more screenings.

The print checker does not form an opinion of the film based on the typical academic theorists, context or artist’s statement. The only point of reference is in the mark of the invisible other. A series of objective rules are laid out in order to gauge a level of damage which correspond to a series notes left by previous print checkers. Damage is the only content we are permitted to see.

When does a line become narrative?

The line is a mark of otherness sitting both outside of the film and asserting itself within; the mark is the narrative of the print checker. X142 (3) declares singular words as the “smallest unit of writing”, but this isn’t so. The line came first and perhaps is the smallest unit of anything: the line occurs allowing everything else to be, whether an outline or a word or the stretch of celluloid material which allows the Artist Film to exist. Before anything becomes anything its media is the thing: the thingyness of the thing itself. The subjectile is the first point of departure as the thing allowing the other thing to be. The thing of the Artist Film is both subjugated to and enabled by its celluloid beginnings. Before the mark of the artist. After the mark of the artist. Everything else just adds to.

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