Line Describing a Cone in 2015

line describing a cone in kandos - photo by alex wisser

[Anthony McCall’s “Line Describing a Cone”, presented by Teaching and Learning Cinema in Kandos in April 2015, as part of CEMENTA festival. Photo by Alex Wisser]

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Louise Curham and I first “met” Anthony McCall’s Line Describing a Cone in 2005, when we took it on an Australian tour to Kellerberrin, Perth, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

For me, that tour was characterised by great anxiety and great joy:

anxiety sparked by a technical mishap at our first scheduled screening in Kellerberrin (a tiny town 3 hours drive from Perth) which left us with a blown bulb, a derelict cinema full of artificial haze, and an assembled group of quizzical sheep-n-wheat farmers who I’d cajoled into coming along to see this amazing piece of 1970s avant-garde cinema;

…and joy arising from every subsequent presentation of Line Describing a Cone, which never failed to delight those in attendance.

Ten years later, we’re in the process of presenting our second “tour” of the Cone. We brought the 16mm print out from LUX in London to show at the CEMENTA festival in Kandos (about 4 hours inland from Sydney). Perhaps this was to some extent an effort to exorcise the demons of that failed Kellerberrin screening. Both Kandos and Kellerberrin are small towns a long way from any sort of projector spare parts; both places are unfamiliar with the experience of expanded cinema.

The Kandos CEMENTA gig had its own challenges. Because the festival plays host to over 50 artists, and because we were relatively late in putting forward the idea of the Cone, we missed out on having an indoor venue allocated for our event. So we began considering the idea of presenting the work outdoors.

I’d been thinking about an outdoors manifestation of the Cone ever since my final night in Kellerberrin. It was late May 2005, and I was driving back to Perth with my best friend Chris, still smarting over our failure to project the Cone in Kellerberrin the previous night. Something was burning. I don’t know whether it was a fire-brigade bush backburn, or a local farmer “burning the stubble“, but the air was filled with smoke. It was pitch black, and the headlights of Chris’ car penetrated the smokey gloom like two handsome cones of light. How wonderful it would be, under such ideal conditions, to project Line Describing a Cone!

The first night we arrived in Kandos, Louise and I spent a few hours stalking about town looking for an ideal site. These were our constraints: it had to be within walking distance from the local railway station, which was hosting the film night that our event was part of; it had to be near a plug-in powerpoint (we had maximum 100m of power cable); it had to be dark enough; and it had to be not-too windy.

This was not an easy set of criteria to satisfy. All the spots in the local parks which looked great were either: too bright (illuminated by streetlights for security); too exposed to breeze (how to contain the smoke/haze in order to illuminate the Cone?); or too far from the railway station (not easy access for our audience).

Unexpectedly, the main street of Kandos plays host to several narrow laneways. These cut down on streetlight illumination, and also breeze. We found the perfect lane between the Kandos Projects Art Gallery and the Kandos Newsagency. It was quite narrow (about 3.5 metres wide) and long enough for a 16 metre throw from projector to end of lane. We were able to hang a double length of dark blue fabric (purchased that day from the Kandos Op Shop) at the entrance of the lane to block off the little bit of light leaking in from the street, and also to act as a screen to receive the circle drawing as it emerges during the course of the work.

These site-specific constraints led to us discovering some things we hadn’t ever had the chance to think about.

In the lead up to the CEMENTA festival, we emailed Anthony to ask if he’d ever presented the Cone outdoors himself. He replied:

The answer is that I have, once. In about 1974, upstate New York at Bon Huot’s farm, late one summer night at a party of artists and filmmakers (including Carolee Schneemann, Hollis Frampton, Bill Brand — probably lots of others too, since it was between Binghampton and Buffalo, as I recall (where the two big avant-garde film departments were).

It was a fine night, and a light mist had settled over the fields. So the conditions were ideal. I simply set the projector up on a stand, a little way away from the house, and pointing across the field. We projected the whole film. The conical was perfectly visible. I remember thinking at the time that it would probably have been better if we’d projected it onto the side of the barn. Somehow, losing the line-drawing, the ‘footprint’, was a loss. Despite the fact that usually when that film is shown, one mostly has one’s back to the ‘screen’, nonetheless the screen image is a reference point that confirms how the cone got there. It is also a reference point back to cinema.

The other aspect of this is visibility. These days we have haze machines which make the cone visible in space. One of the purposes of an indoor space is to keep unwanted light out, but also to keep the haze in. Outdoors, you’d have a difficult job controlling the vapor, unless of course there was, as there was upstate that night, a natural mist hanging there.

In Kandos, the night before our public event the air was perfectly still, and Louise and I set up a “dress rehearsal” in the laneway. There was a gentle slope down from where the projector sat, and we placed the hazer machine next to the projector. At the entrance to the laneway, looking back at the projector, standing inside the Cone, the haze spiralled slowly and beautifully towards us. I suppose being slightly heavier than air, it “rolled” down the lane. It had a rougher “grain” of smoke than you get with a hazer machine situated inside the more controlled atmosphere of a museum.

On the night of our public screening, the wind picked up a little. Not a huge amount, but enough to make us nervous. If a big breeze settled in, it would scuttle the whole event. A possible solution would have been to have two hazer machines – one at each end of the lane, but we were 300km away from the nearest audio-visual hire outlet, and it was a Sunday night. We began to sweat, like it was Kellerberrin all over again. An unexpectedly large audience had gathered – more than 60 people – occupying the narrow laneway with a density of bodies that I suspect was quite unusual for Kandos.

What could we do? We just had to give it a try. To our advantage, all the bodies blocked the breeze a little, as well as kicking up a bit of dust from the laneway’s floor. We set up the hazer near the projector as we had for our dress rehearsal. During the projection, the breeze wafted the haze lazily back and forward. Sometimes, if it blew back towards the projector, the Cone was rendered invisible; other times, when it blew away from the projector, it brought the Cone dramatically into visibility. The latter was accompanied by appreciative mewings from the participants.

At times, some lovely unexpected things happened – for example, at one moment towards the end, the Cone was completely visible, and then the breeze changed direction, blowing the haze back towards the projector. This created the illusion that the projector was “inhaling” the vapour back into itself – the Cone shrinking before our eyes! And then it “exhaled” again one last time, the crowd murmured with pleasure, and it was over.

It was a perfectly clear night and the stars were shining above the laneway – visible through the “roof” of the cone. As Louise pointed out, connecting the Cone to the extremely legible “big sky” of rural NSW was, in retrospect, essential. But of course we hadn’t thought of that at the time we planned to work outdoors.

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… a further note about our relationship to Line Describing a Cone: its “author” is Anthony McCall. Our presentation of it, here at CEMENTA in Kandos or wherever, does not make it our work.

Nor are we “re-enacting” or “re-making” this work. Some of our other projects with 1970s expanded cinema, like “(wo)man with mirror” or “horror film 1” are indeed re-creations as they involve us having to make substantial alterations to the original, just to bring it to life in the present space and time without requiring the originating artist to be physically with us at the moment of performance. They possess a duality – we argue that they simultaneously offer an experience of “the original work” (they have its “DNA”) and at the same time, they are mediated reflections on the original work from within its own skin.

These re-enactments are also doubled in terms of their authorship – they belong (perhaps awkwardly) to both the originating artists and the re-enactors – and perhaps this will be increasingly true in the future when the originating artists cease to perform these works.

None of this applies to our public presentations of “Line Describing a Cone”. The 16mm film print is readily available from LUX in London, and we hire it from them for our public and educational screenings.

We simply follow McCall’s instructions to set the work up (eg: size of the room, use of hazer machine, getting the smoke alarms turned off, making the room as dark as possible, using a xenon arc lamp projector, creation of an event with an invited audience, and so on).

If all these conditions are met, the work ‘comes alive’ – but it is still Anthony McCall’s Line Describing a Cone (the “original”) – not a re-enactment of it. The Cone has an inbuilt capacity to travel across time and space, and Anthony McCall himself does not need to be physically present for his work to manifest itself.

This might be a minor point but I think it’s worth making!

So what is our relationship to the work, if we are not its authors, nor its re-enactors? Are we its artist-curators? We sometimes use the term “custodians” to refer to our re-enactment works, but even this seems a bit heavy-handed for the Cone.

How about this: Line Describing a Cone is like a colleague of ours from overseas
who we invite to visit us from time to time. We are so fond of this fellow that whenever he graces us with his presence, we organise an event to introduce him to our local friends. Everyone enjoys spending time with him – which in turn, of course, makes us look good.