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Anthony McCall
Line Describing a Cone garnered new attention from the art world during the Whitney Museum's exhibition, "Into the Light," which offered a genealogy of moving image installation art, now a dominant form in the contemporary art world.

With this premise in mind, the Whitney presented Line as a looped installation that spectators could visit on their own time rather than in screenings with scheduled beginning and end times (the format in which the film was usually shown). The film was thus experienced as a sculptural object, a manifestation of the phenomenological aesthetic of minimalism, conceptual art's use of ephemeral substances, and the participatory ethic of happenings. Its relationship to avant-garde film received little mention.

Under these circumstances, McCall began to reconsider his solid light films, and since 2003 has made several new ones. Doubling Back (2003), Turning Under (2004), Breath (2004), and the vertically projected Between You and I (2006) follow the general format of the earlier works, but are different in significant ways. McCall's use of computer imaging software rather than standard frame-by-frame film animation enables much more complex forms. In Doubling Back, for instance, two slowly undulating waves of light overlap, creating subtle curves and corridors whose movements are less predictable than those of the earlier films. In Turning Under, a blade of light like those in Long Film for Four Projectors intersects a wave; both shapes slowly twist from a vertical to a horizontal orientation, seeming to press down on the space and the spectator within it.

The titles of the new films evoke narratives and the body, a reference McCall has made consistently in conversations and interviews. The movements of the sensuous curvilinear forms possess an organic quality, further calling to mind connotations of the body. One consequence of McCall's re-examination of his earlier works, then, is a rediscovery of their connotative richness, which was framed out by the anti-illusionist bias of structural and structural-materialist film and post-minimal literalness. The emphasis on scale, the relationship between work and viewer, and the physicality of cinematic experience are re-imagined as bodily metaphors of movement (Doubling Back, Turning Under), physiology (Breath), and interpersonal relations (Between You and I).

This raises another key difference between the two generations of films. The new work has mainly been shown in galleries as installations, and McCall has increasingly discussed it in sculptural terms, though he ultimately places it in a grey zone between the sculptural and cinematic, conceiving each category as independent of any particular medium and therefore quite fluid. The question - sculpture or cinema? - isn't merely academic. Placing the work in one or another context has consequences for where and when it is shown, and how it is experienced and talked about. McCall is particularly attentive to the differences between the temporality of the gallery and that of the cinema. When he took to the gallery space in the seventies, he was concerned that creating a "one-to-one relationship between spectator and work" might ultimately isolate the spectator, privileging a kind of absorbed, individualistic spectatorial experience that Modernist criticism advocated over the dynamic and participatory experience of post-minimal art. When the Whitney reconfigured Line Describing a Cone as an installation, he worried that the viewers' ability to make out broad temporal patterns and to feel the sheer duration of the entire film's unfolding might be compromised. He was pleased with the result, however, and came to think of it as another version of the film. In reference to the new films, McCall speaks of the benefits of the installation format, which requires viewers to discover the films in a different way. In a sense, the context - both the literal exhibition space and the artistic traditions it represents - is as much McCall's medium as film, light, space, and time.

McCall has suggested that the worlds of art and of avant-garde cinema are like the strands of a double-helix, "spiraling closely around one another without ever quite meeting." Nonetheless, he has been able to work in both, occupying them comfortably at the same time. He thus emerges as an important figure for anyone trying to make sense of the complicated interactions between film and the other arts in the avant-garde. His films negotiate between the worlds of gallery art and experimental film, drawing on - and drawing together - the aesthetics, histories, methodologies, and institutional spaces of both.

Jonathan Walley is an Assistant Professor in the Cinema Department at Denison University. He has published several texts on Anthony McCall's films and similar work by avant-garde filmmakers of the sixties and seventies.

Jonathan Walley
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