Pants off, Party on

OK – this blog entry is dedicated to exploring the fleshy world of Malcolm Le Grice’s Horror Film 1. If we are to plunge further into the project of re-enacting this work (and it seems that we are!) then we need to have a think about some corporeal issues.

The facts:

  • In its current manifestation, Horror Film 1 involves Malcolm Le Grice performing live in the projected light of three 16mm projectors.
  • The performer has his back to the audience. Beginning at the screen, he proceeds, walking slowly backwards, to the projectors (more will be said about this choreography in another blog post).
  • The performer is shirtless.
  • In some early performances of the work (in the early 1970s) Malcolm would perform nude.
  • At some point later on (when exactly?) he decided no longer to be completely nude for the performance of Horror Film 1. From then on, to this day, he performs wearing pants but no shirt. (Over here you can see some documentation of Malcolm performing with trousers on; and here’s another image.)
  • Apart from this, the choreography of Horror Film 1 as it is performed now (nearly 40 years later) is very similar to how it was originally performed.
  • Malcolm has confirmed that the physical moves which constitute the live action in Horror Film 1 are very similar to how they have always been. He discovered this by looking at freeze-frames from the documentation embedded within William Raban’s timelapse film from the FILMAKTION events.

Questions arising:

  • Why did Malcolm feel the need to perform nude in the early performances of Horror Film 1?
  • Why did he change his mind and only perform shirtless after a certain point?
  • What are the implications of all of this (in terms of the work’s meaning and reception)?
  • What are the implications of all of this (in terms of our job of re-enacting the piece)?

First of all – we don’t have very much information from Malcolm himself about his reasons for performing nude or not. I do remember him joking, something along the lines of this:

“When I performed it nude… after I switched off the projectors at the end of the piece and the audience was clapping, it was always a race to see whether I could get my clothes on again before the house lights went up!”

Apart from this, we have this snippet from 2000

“Thirty years ago I normally did this naked but now only venture to remove my shirt – when I did it at the Whitechapel show I decided I should soon need to train a stand in.”

OK at the moment I’ll leave it at that – with more questions than answers. Louise and I are here at the CCAS in Canberra, and we’re discussing the particular readings that the work will take on, depending on whether a man or a woman performs it, and depending on how much (if any) clothing the performer is wearing.

The other thing we’re delving into in our chats, is to do with the “spell” that the piece potentially creates. My feeling is that the work’s ingredients are as such:

  • The room (dark)
  • The sound (breathing amplified)
  • The projections (3x 16mm with coloured loops) – and the wall being projected on
  • The body of the performer (a single body)
  • The audience

If you take away any of those basic ingredients, the work as such disappears. Or rather, the “spell” of the work begins to dissipate. The feeling I’m getting as we muck around with the loops in the gallery here in Canberra, is that the piece needs to cross a threshold from the everyday to the special. Well, all cinema does this: the lights go out, a hush goes across the cinema space, people turn off their phones and stop muttering, and the spell begins.

In some ways, to claim that a piece by Malcolm Le Grice also subscribes to this transition into spell-state is odd. He’s the great debunker of hollywood spectacle, the iconoclast – he wants us to uncomfortably shift ourselves out of our seduction by the spectacle. But…but… his works do have a visual pleasure and a social specialness, and that’s one of the things that makes them endure.

Anyway, my thought is this – hanging out here in the gallery space, I become acutely aware that we need to create the conditions for this spell-state, to have ourselves cross a threshold into something ceremonial and ritualistic. This is not just to generate something special for the audience, but also for ourselves.

And one of the big things to consider is how the performer can get into that state. It’s a sort of mindfulness so that a charged atmosphere is generated, so that the performer is tuned into his/her body and its relationship to the projectors, the screen, the room, the amplified breathing, the audience.

My feeling is that one factor that could contribute strongly to the transition from the casual everyday, to the generation of this mindful state, is the shedding of the trappings of the everyday – in other words, nuding up.

In the half a dozen times I’ve been employed as a nude life model for a drawing class, I’ve had that threshold-crossing experience, which creates an calming, embodied and mindful state. It might be that performing the piece without any clothes can help the performer of Horror Film 1 to do that.

– – –

In relation to this line of enquiry, other things we could also consider –

  1. Lucy Reynolds’ article on shadow play
  2. Sally Potter book – on difference between men and women expanded cinema
  3. Vitruvian Man – male=universal (in relation to whether Louise or I perform the work – but this is a matter for another blog post)

2 replies on “Pants off, Party on”

  1. hmm – I didn’t really resolve here how we made the decision about WHO should perform the work. In the end, Louise was chosen as our initial performer for the re-enactment of Horror Film 1. But what was our thinking process, and how did we come to this decision?

  2. We didn’t have an extended conversation about it. However I recall these steps – when we first set up the three projections, we did spend quite a bit of time playing with them. I recall us each trying out some of the key gestures and I recall us trying them out with both of us, standing one behind the other.
    We spent quite a lot of time working on the size of the projections and the decision to make it wing span width was quite an important one so that there was a relationship between the human body and the projection. When we tried it really big, it just seemed to dwarf the body in a spectacular but not specially interesting way. We did of course discover as Malcolm described to us that at a certain point, the size of the projection really doesn’t matter because you back up to the projectors any way. However it did seem a problem to have ‘big’ technology dwarfing ‘small human’, seemed to draw attention away from the figure.
    I recall spending some time looking closely at the vimeo documentation of the gestures, I recall being quite concerned to understand the ‘moves’ and to have a good sense of the choreography. I don’t think we had time to sit together and do this, I’m sure you (Lucas) were busy forming your own mental map of the moves too.
    Our 5 days working on the piece were very rushed. We spent 3-4 days solving technical problems and then of course, the days were not solely devoted to the project between car troubles, family and work commitments.
    I recall that it was day 4 (Fri) when we got to the question of who and it was a rushed conversation before school pick up. The decision seemed to make itself. I think partly this came about because I had been trying out the gestures quite a lot. And I think we seemed to have tacit agreement that we wanted to take it somewhere further than what Malcolm currently performs and the obvious way to do that was to have me perform it. I also think by that stage we had actually set it to my arm span because I had been mucking around in front of it quite a lot – I think that very basic logistic was a big factor given we had very little time before we had to perform it and we also had to set up (Wo)Man With Mirror. Now that I reflect on it, I think this was the driving force behind this decision – utterly pragmatic!
    Regarding nudity, we did discuss that specifically and agreed that was up to me. It seemed an obvious choice to me. Partly because I think the vulnerability of the naked body seemed important with the simplicity of the projection set up and the work as a whole. partly because Malcolm did it this way initially. The logistics of it were quite simple, walk across in the near dark, back to the room before lights up. The under 5s who were present were very interested that Louise took her pants off.
    I’m not sure I will need to do it nude again, I can imagine a pair of slacks. I think because it has a very particular kind of vulnerability, either the piece would have to wait until the setting was right for this or trousers would be required. So there you go, for me nudity has some kind of contract with the audience, something I don’t want to do frivolously. Another factor for me in favour of nudity is quite pragmatic – I did a lot of work back in the mid 90s exploring the possiblities of Tony Oursler’s sad figures for performance. Projection straight on the human body is incredibly beautiful because of the lustre of the skin.

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