Untitled Document

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Conference Malcolm Le Grice
ECAL, 10 february 2014

Time, Space and the Spectator

I would begin with a kind of history of where I came from, the situations that I worked in and the people that I worked with.

I was born in 1940, at the beginning of the Second World War, in Plymouth, Devon, in England which was very heavily bombed. Curiously my earliest experiences were of that war situation and bombing. It did make some kind of difference to the way that I experienced things. This early part of my life I definitely have dreams about. I was not a good scholar. I was only really interested in art and rugby – a curious combination –, biology and physics. And like a lot of people who weren’t interested in school I decided I’d become an artist. I went in art school in Plymouth, which is a very provincial art school and traditional, but not excessively traditional. I studied painting, drawing, life drawing, graphic design and 3D sculpture. I even did some ceramics. So I did very broad initial education in art. I think I was talented visually. The other thing that was very important at the time was that I liked jazz music. The biggest influence on my thinking is jazz. I played guitar reasonably well – rhythm guitar and banjo. I was background in jazz bands. That was a major part of my early period of being an art student.

I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship to the Slade School in London, which is one of the three most desirable schools in England. So I moved from Plymouth to London at 21 and got married at the same time and soon had a son. London was a very different kind of thing: I really felt like I was someone up from the country, someone who’d come from the provinces. And you hit this very sophisticated different kind of world. I had to do it because I used to call Plymouth a “culture-free zone“, a place where there was no background of culture. And along with a number of my other colleagues of the art school we all went to London as soon as we could. In London I concentrated on painting. I continued a little bit to play jazz.

Painting, Malcolm Le Grice, 1963

This is an early painting that I did, probably in 1963-64. I was actually very interested in kind of systems. I said I liked physics and biology. I actually got my education after I left school. I read a lot and I did keep up with developments in cybernetics, communication and information theory, genetics… I got interested in some of those things that were going on in science and the sort of thinking that was involved in them. Though I wasn’t illustrating that in my painting, I got interested in the concepts that were coming out of some scientific things and some scientific way of thinking.

The next thing is a transition between painting and film. 1960s, late 60s – early 70s was a time that people talk about “Swinging London“. But really what was going on in the arts in general was a sense that the boundaries were disappearing; that the ideal of the canvas and the frame, and all sorts of things were shifting about what was acceptable in all the art forms. And London was very lively about it at that time. I started to make paintings, or what might be better called assemblages. This is again from about 1964.

Assemblage, Malcolm Le Grice, 1964

I can’t say I was uninfluenced – I was very taken with Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and I was interested particularly in improvised music performance and experimenting the sound. I was reading McLuhan. And I started to make paintings that became surfaces in front of which something happened. So they weren’t pictures that you’d look through (although a lot is going on that black surface: there are objects that are being painted into the surface) but the main thing was that I was hanging things in front of it with clips and strings, attaching things from in front of the painting. When I exhibited this at the Arts Laboratory in Drury Lane first I would change the attachments each time I went in. I even might sit in a chair and attach myself to the picture so it was constantly changing.

And the other thing was that I started to record or replay sound. This is aluminium foil here (points to Assemblage image) and there’s a microphone in front, which goes down to an amplifier. So the vibration of people going by is recorded through the microphone and out through the amplifier. And this is a transistor radio, which is a kind of random station. And the influence is again clearly the sort of things that were coming out from John Cage although I actually didn’t know much about Cage at the time. I was then also working with an improvisation music group called AMM. They were the group that did almost all of the advanced music at the time in London and I was doing some things with them, including some light presentations. I was recording them and playing there, recording back into the performance and changing the speeds, and all sorts of things like that. So the painting then in a way began not to be a painting; it began to be something that took me away from the surface.

This is a recent exhibition at the Camden Art Centre. This is a second piece from the same period. In front of the paintings I often had this flashing light bulb and this one is attached here to a sort of still life.

Assemblage, Malcolm Le Grice, 1964

But it could be something else. I exhibited it two or three times recently: each of them had had some kind of still life but if I showed it again tomorrow it might have a different thing. I exhibited this as an installation with the first 16mm film (I did some 8mm work), which was called Castle 1. I told people this morning that one of the things I did when I was first teaching at Saint Martins, I would pick up material from the garbage cans in Soho, which were bits of film. And I made the first film primarily by cutting and repeating segments from the films, which I found. I interspersed that with images of the flashing light bulb and when I presented it I always had a light bulb coming in front of the screen which also flashed on and off. I had a machine that I made for making it flash but also sometimes did it by hand. You can imagine the effect of that was to bleach out the screen and to illuminate the audience.

The sorts of things that I was thinking about at that time were Brecht and alienation devices. Particularly all the discussions I was having with other film related artists at the time were about shifting the centre of meaning from the artwork to the spectator. It was a kind of political idea that somehow or other was undemanding the artist and making the spectator aware of themselves and of their life in relationship to the work. The work was for them to make a construction of meaning of rather than to absorb the meaning put in there by the artist.

The other thing was that it was Anti-cinema. I’d seen pretty much all of the advanced cinema of Godard, Truffaut, Resnais, Chris Marker… all of the things which were advanced cinema at that period, in London, as a student. But I knew that I didn’t want to make films like that. I felt that all those films were basically very illusionistic and 19th century. I didn’t think that they gave me the same sense of the present that I was getting from advanced artists like Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg, from musicians like Ornette Coleman, John Cage, from literature like Kafka, from theatre like Beckett. This seemed to me to belong to the time that I was working in. Even the advanced films seemed to me to be constructed like 19th century novels, and that’s a bit too complicated. So the flashing light bulb was part of that. The Anti-cinema was a big attack on the audience. It was very Dadaistic, punk attack on the audience. But I realized fairly soon it wasn’t just an attack on the audience but it was also an attack on my own sensibility. I was trying to crack open my own preconceptions about cinema. I was doing it in public but I would probably never want to put audiences through that experience now, although in recent years lots of people have asked to see this work and it’s been quite “popular”.

This is the installation. The film is on here. This is a little clip. So you can see it wasn’t a pleasant experience, not even for me (shows clip of Castle 1 presentation).

But curiously it was very important for me. It kind of cleared the ground. The reference here to Castle 1 is a kind of attempt to make a parallel with the sort of paranoia that you have with Kafka, which influenced me a great deal at that time.

The next important thing was that from making that film in 16mm and having being the painter and making music, I became very aware that film was a very alienating process. The film print had to be done in a laboratory and I wasn’t happy with that: I felt that was very different from the hands-on experience that I had with painting and I wanted to reproduce that. And there were only two or three people in London making what you might call experimental film, but there was no scene. I talked to my friend David Curtis about it: we talked about how we might improve the capability for people to make film, open it out. Cost was a really important part of this. The film stock was horribly expensive; the cameras were expensive or difficult to hire; the laboratories were ridiculously expensive. So filmmaking was very difficult and expensive business. He and I had this idea that we would set up a filmmakers’ workshop. As a beginning for this I tried to make some filmmaking equipment. I came in as a complete primitive; I didn’t know anything. I built a film-printing machine from an old projector. This is the diagram of it. This is the equivalent of the negative in photography. It comes through the film projector gate bi-packed with the unexposed print stock and it comes down. The lamp here shines through the negative and makes a print onto the print stock. It worked and I made all the five or six first films, except for Castle 1, on this equipment.

The other thing, which I did at the same time, was a developing machine. A 16mm film for ten minutes is about 100 meters. If you try developing a 100 meters of film and then putting it through the fix, washing it and then drying it – it’s impossible. So I built this machine, which would do it continuously.

Developer, Malcolm Le Grice, 1966

Having exposed the print, the print comes off here and goes through a developing tank four times. This is all made from plywood and plastic bucket and the spindles are all plastic drainpipes. It’s extremely primitive. It goes through development, fix and then two wash tanks to get rid of the fix. Then the problem is drying it. It’s very slow. So I put in this box, again made of plywood, and I put a hair dryer in here. So as the film came through, the hair dryer dried it. Amazingly it worked! But what was obvious was that it could not be the basis of a filmmakers’ workshop. It was too unreliable, complicated, and slow.

I was involved then with the London Filmmakers’ Cooperative, which was a distribution organisation at that time in London based on the New York Coop. I met up with a financier from New York who had brought the Living Theatre to London. We talked about this idea of a filmmakers’ workshop and he said “How much money do you need to do it?“ - I said about 3000 pounds. He said ok. I finished up with an envelope with 3000 pounds, went to a laboratory and bought a professional printing machine, which they no longer wanted, and an old army developing machine. And we installed that at the London Filmmakers’ Cooperative. Almost all of the London experimental films from that period for at least four or five years were produced at the London Filmmakers’ Cooperative with that equipment.

Little Dog for Roger (1967) (Shows extract) was made using the equipment that I produced but it was also done in some simpler ways by direct printing under glass and then putting the sequences together. The material is an old 9.5mm medium that was an early home movie medium. My father shot this when I was a child. I discovered this fragment in their basement and put it back together in a way. At the time, what I was thinking about was the medium. I was interested in drawing attention to the materiality of the medium: its substance, the scratches and the sprockets. I didn’t think very much about the sentimentality of the content. Now I think much more on the symbolic aspect of it. And it was on a double projection. A lot of the work that I did at the very early stage worked with double projection which I liked the comparative aspect. In this film one projection runs at 16 f/s and the other at 24 f/s.

This piece, Reign of the Vampire (1970), (Shows extract) is part of a series, which I called How to Screw the CIA. The interesting bit here is a piece of music experiment that was documented where I ran sound from one tape recorder to another tape recorder, shifted the distance between them, and I fed the signal from the second back into the first one and mixed some other sounds in. It made a very complicated building loop soundtrack. I got very interested in loop soundtracks and loop films. I showed this work at an exhibition about system art in the Whitechapel Gallery in London. In the audience was Brian Eno (he was not known at that time) and when he saw this he said: “I’m working on some similar ideas in music. Would you be interested in a soundtrack?“. I had a soundtrack on a film called Berlin Horse and wasn’t happy with it. He sent me two tapes and one of the tapes I made into the soundtrack for Berlin Horse (1970). (Shows extract)

This is documentation from a TV documentary that they did about my work some while ago.

The next important bit of my experience as an artist was starting to do some performance works. Three kinds: one was shadow performances where I would make a performance between the projector and the screen; another kind was to have loops in film projectors, move the projectors and superimpose them on each other and make a pattern with them in a live performance; and the third kind was to set up loop film installations, more sculptural so that they might be working on four different walls – as sculpture pieces, not as film pieces.

This is a short combined documentation of a work called Horror Film 1. (Shows extract) I started doing this in 1971 and I’ve been doing it ever since. I did it recently in New York. This is a documentation made from a number of different performances. At the back of the space are three 16mm projectors with loops. The loops are extremely simple with slow changing colour. The middle projector projects large and the two outer projectors project over the top of each other into a screen in the middle. I make a performance, which begins touching the screen and exploring the screen surface. I gradually come back until I get back to the projector itself and I’m then making shadow actions. It’s quite visually complex but the material for it is very simple. I was always interested in something that is kind of magic, but a magic where nobody is puzzled about how it’s done.

I was asked to talk about a group called Filmaktion. At this point it was very unusual to be taking films into the art galleries. This crossover between film, performance, installation and the art gallery was not a common thing. They tried to sell films and videos through art galleries but as commercial artworks. So it was a fairly radical thing to do. We did an exhibition at a gallery in London – we as a group which came to be called Filmaktion. We improvised for a couple of weeks and did a number of loop film performances and all sorts of things. That group of people which at that time was myself, William Rabin, Gill Eatherley and Annabel Nicolson, we then did an exhibition in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool which was actually called Filmaktion. It was an attempt to get an idea of film as something that happened in a live performance environment. We were present all the time, constantly changing things and we also did children workshops – had them painting on the film and all sorts of things like that. It was a much more engaged thing. That group pretty much stayed together. Some other people were involved with the Filmaktion exhibition in Liverpool but really the group were those four people. We were closely together.

This is a piece by me called After Manet (1975). (Shows extract) It’s based on Le déjeuner sur l’herbe. I was interested in those art links. We shot on a whole day with four cameras in a field with a picnic. Each of the cameras was related to one of the performers. The people who ran the cameras were also the performers. The only people there were the four people and each had a camera. If they were in the shot, they were not running the camera. The camera started in fixed position but gradually the camera moved around. It’s a very complicated piece, about an hour long. It’s projected then on four 16mm projectors. There are shifts in the synchronization because they were unsynchronized cameras. But I corrected that by the speed of the projectors. And in the video, which I’ve got here, I did it by slowing things down. But I don’t want them to stay in complete synchronization.

This is documentation. It’s not the actual performance. This was the first exhibition at a gallery house. You can see the sort of setup. We were all interested in multi-screen and performances.

Horror Film 2, Malcolm Le Grice, 1972

This is another piece that we did together. This is a 3D shadow play. That’s the projection screen and the audience is there. They all have 3D spectacles. The back is a green and a red light and as you move around in the space it casts the red-green shadow. With the 3D spectacles the three-dimensional effect is very strong. It’s very powerful visually. It’s a kind of Grand Guignol piece. I stole the idea from an old musical theatre piece where they often did the shadow play but in one occasion they finished the variety show with this 3D shadow thing. I thought it was a really a nice thing to do.

This is a work by Gill Eatherley. (Shows extract of Gill Eatherly, Hand Grenade 1973) We worked together – we weren’t in a way collaborating. I did the camera work for this. We shot it in a dark room on black and white with a frame-by-frame camera. Gill was moving flash light bulbs around in various ways, which we then superimposed and coloured at the Filmmakers’ Cooperative with the colour printer, and then projected three screens.

That was a very poor representation of a work called Two Minutes Forty Five Seconds (1972) (by William Raban (Shows extract). It was a piece that he did over a number of night’s performances with a camera that had a sound recording and a film. Then he would develop that film over night and then project it again onto the screen and then do the performance again each time. It was a kind of video piece done with film.

This is another piece by William Raban called Diagonal (1973) (Shows extract). which I like very much. In a lot of the work the empty screen of one sort or another or the coloured screen became the subject. It was about the reality of the screen. Line Describing a Cone by Anthony McCall comes from the same era. When the space of the projection becomes as important as the image on the screen. It was also taking the screen as point zero. It was a complete break with the idea of the content of a work existed in the image behind the screen. All photographic aspects of cinema… in a way … content exists behind the screen. There’s an argument that I make a lot: the narrative is an equivalent to that, where the action takes place before the event; the action is also behind the screen. This was against the visual illusion of perspective space, but also against the time illusion of the narrative.

This work is a piece by Annabel Nicolson (Shows Still of Reel Time(1973) Her work is very difficult to see. She’s not well and very disinclined to do things in public at the moment. This is a beautiful piece where she had a loop of film, which went around a room into a sewing machine with a needle. The film was coming through the sewing machine and going out to the projector. The projector was showing the effect of the sewing machine and you saw her making the sewing film until it broke. It’s called Real Time.

The Filmaktion work was the subject of a Tate Modern show recently and we all reproduced a number of these pieces. All these works come from 1972-1973-1974, that sort of period. This is a piece where I move the projectors during the performance, (Shows documentation clip of Threshold (1972) so they change configuration and superimpose on each other. They can go vertically, horizontally, sometimes projecting up into a corner depending on the space. This is an early time laps. It’s a video representation of a moving projector piece that I originally did with film.

This is a complete work, 8 minutes long. It’s the work that has the soundtrack by Brian Eno. It was the first 16mm colour film that I made when we setup the proper professional printer at the Film Coop. It was based on a piece of 8mm of a horse being exercised that I shot in a village called Berlin, north of Hamburg in Germany. Then I refilmed it on 16mm and then kept transforming it – it’s completely improvised as it goes along, and then the final sequence is from an old film of horses being led from a burning barn that I’m told is by Edison. It was one of the bits and found material that I had. This is Berlin Horse (1970). (Shows complete double screen work).

Now I’m going to show some complete works. This first piece is called Even the Cyclops Pays the Ferryman (1998) and it’s a kind of requiem for the death of my father who was the Cyclops – he lost an eye after the war, he was dismantling an army refrigerator that had ammoniac and the ammoniac went in his face and he lost an eye. It made absolutely no difference to him at all. He was essentialist, lived life to the full, burnt the candles at both ends and did the middle as well, completely nonreligious, drank a lot, smoked a lot and drove a car twice the speed he should go, with one eye. I liked him a lot. So I made this work as a kind of requiem, but a nonreligious one, because I’m a complete atheist. But it is about that kind of death ritual and the idea of decomposition, in a physical sense. It’s for me a symbolic type of piece.

Two of the works have quite a lot of digital work (the last one you’ve seen and The Portrait of Dennis Oppenheim, DENISINED, 2006). I did a lot of digital work in the sound. The other works are straight from the camera and edited. A lot of the work including Cyclops is really mixed methods, mostly analog actually.

        Question: In Horror Film, was the sound recorded before?

MLG: I pre-recorded it. At the beginning I listen to it and get the rhythm of it, and then it’s very physical: I put my breathing in relationship… It’s quite nice because I’m performing with the sound. And I’m not sure my breathing would be even enough.

        Question: Can you tell us more about your creative process?

MLG: Sleeping and avoiding it as much as I can! It’s very continuous really. A lot of the works are worked on a lot. A lot is done at the editing, with the computer editing. Some things begin… it comes to me to do it. I don’t chase the idea. Child on the Beach (Critical Moment 1) (2004), for example: there wasn’t originally a connection between shooting that and Piaget, the psychologist. I was fascinated by what the child was doing – dropping something, looking for it, simply that, but shot over the child’s shoulder. You don’t see his face. He happens to be my grandson, but that’s not important. It’s not in that way sentimental at all: I was just fascinated by this thing. I connected that up. I was very influenced by the thinking of Jean Piaget. He did an extremely close observation of his own children growing up, and when my children were growing up I was also reading the Piaget – it’s called The construction of reality in the child (New York: Basic Books, 1954) [La construction du réel chez l'enfant (1950), also translated as The Child's Construction of Reality (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1955)].

It’s all about how children develop a concept of their space and environment from the way, which they engage with it. It’s not behaviourist but it isn’t psychoanalytic either. For example, the idea that an object has continuity, for a child, when they see the object, it’s there, when they don’t see it, it doesn’t exist. Children can be very disturbed when something disappears because as far as they’re concerned it’s gone forever. Then they gradually learn to connect something, which is gone out of sight. That thing of how we physically structure our environment… Vision is only a part of it. A blind child can still develop a concept of their environment. So vision is not the crucial thing. Huge emotional energy goes into forming those relationships, and that psychological energy is stored in the relationship and it gets released if that relationship gets stretched like on magic. The illusionist magician, you know that he hasn’t taken the coin out of your ear, but there’s something to do with the pleasure of continuity and discontinuity. I didn’t begin making that from that position, but all the thoughts about that... I didn’t think of making a movie when I shot it. I shoot things all the time – and this time it was with a camera, but for twenty years now I’ve almost always had a video camera with me. And it’s only after I’ve shot it that I think there’s something there interesting. That piece doesn’t sustain longer than a minute. You can actually do a work that’s only a minute long.

Absinthe (2010) is similar. I made a film about Kafka’s house in Prague (For the Benefit of Mr K,1995). I was in Prague recently to do a show and I thought I’m going to make a high-definition version of the same thing. When I got there, it became so commercialized that I’m not interested anymore. I found this funny little café, strolled in, sat down and looked at the menu. As I was drinking wine I saw also that they were selling absinthe - and I thought absinthe was illegal. If you’re interested in art history, absinthe has been an important thing in art history (Picasso, Van Gogh, Degas…). Absinthe was an art idea. I’d never had absinthe and asked the owner of the café for absinthe. When he brought it, I said I’ve no idea how to drink this… he showed me and I videoed it.