Review of Line Describing a Cone

The following review was originally posted on a blog called File Thirteen, back in 2001. We linked to it in 2005 when we organised our first Australian tour of Line Describing a Cone. The File Thirteen blog doesn’t seem to be online any more – the review is on the Internet Archive, but we’ll re-post it here for an extra backup, and because we think it’s a nice piece of writing.

Line Describing a Cone (1973)
Perhaps the most original performance art film ever created, Anthony McCall’s ground-breaking 1973 “Line Describing a Cone” can be summed up pretty basically. McCall uses a projector to create a light beam that runs through a space filled with smoke. His 30 minute film begins with solid black; soon a single point appears, causing a shaft of light to be emitted across the room. Finally, the dot builds, becoming a line, than an arc, then semi-circle, before finally being completed as a circle projected on a black. This process takes about 30 minutes. When finished, the light beam emitted from the projector, through the black film with circle drawn upon it, shown across a smokey room, appears to be in the shape of a cone with tip at projector’s lens and base at the wall on which the light beam is projected.

The curious thing about this film is that the audience is urge, in fact expected, to not simply sit and watch the film, but to move about the room (where there are no chairs) and inspect and play with the light beam. This becomes fascinating as the projected light beam can be interesting when viewed from different angles about the room. Also, the audience playing in the light beam can create myriad interesting visual images. It’s rather astounding for something so seemingly simplistic.

By creating a film, and determining the space and manner in which it should be projected, McCall creates a “performance film.” “Line Describing a Sphere” is perhaps the first (and only?) avant-garde “audience participation film” as well. Watching the film, in a pitch black space, one initially moves through the space with trepidation, afraid that they will run into another audience member. Recollections of bathhouses and adult book stores struck me in this early period of the film. But as the light beam projected grows and eyes become adjusted to the space, one begins to move more comfortably around the room and experiment with the context of the piece. The blackened room becomes a playground where our imaginations and creativity are allowed to flow. It is interesting to note that if this film was shown to children, they would play quite freely in the space and with the projected lights. But adults are far more restrained and aware of others’ “personal space.” We are curious yet cautious, experimental yet apprehensive. We don’t want to diminish the experience for the others in our “audience.” So, sadly, we don’t play as freely… at least initially.

But as the film unwinds during it’s 30 minute running, we become more free and more relaxed. Eventually, everyone begins to play in the light and often the experience of seeing someone else playing in the light is as amusing, interesting, and surprising as our own self-revelations. The audience becomes more than simply just a group of strangers. We become “audience” sharing an experience. Because the film is silent, we become more relaxed about speaking out or laughing or showing awe verbally while as a group. It becomes a heightened “shared” experience. It brings a sort of “togetherness” to the group. It’s very “70’s” and very communal.

“Line Describing a Cone” is beautiful in it’s simplicity. It’s amazing it took someone over 8 decades after film was invented to create such a piece. But the beauty of the film is it’s ability to incite imagination and curiosity and experimentation in a group of random viewers who all happen to be sharing the same cinematic and artistic experience.

This is as much a film as a statement on film. The piece shares many common bonds with more traditional films. It takes film to a more basic level where audience interacts more exactly with film. Like all film, it requires no live physical person to represent the film at it’s viewing (except perhaps, like all film, the projectionist). It requires only film, projector, projector operator and audience. And like all film, the audience often has shared reactions to the playing out of the film. There is shared moments of laughter, awe and interest, even if we are strangers at the event, even if we all arrive and depart separately, even if all of our perspectives are different.

And, after all, isn’t that one of the greatest magics film has to offer?

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