43rd Annual Meeting – Electronic Media + Objects, May 15th: “Conserving Anthony McCall’s Solid Light Films” by Jeff Martin

Jeff Martin, archivist and conservator, gave a talk about the conservation project of Anthony McCall’s Solid Light Films. It started in 2012, when Pamela and Richard Kramlich gave 6 film installations made by the English artist Anthony McCall in the 1970’s, to the New Art Trust (NAT) which has worked on the preservation and showing of time-based media works, since its creation by the Kramlichs in the 1990’s.
Martin started by presenting the artworks’ history. The 6 solid light films, made between 1973 and 1975, are 16 mm silver films, where “a white dot traces a circle on a black background; and when projected, it creates a volume cone.” The films were projected in different directions, and the viewer has to move around in the light. Then, in the early 2000’s, the digital files allowed an easier installation and projection (in particular, vertically). McCall took this opportunity to revisit his work of the 1970’s and created new installations on a digital support using digital projection.
Subsequently Jeff Martin introduced the conservation, presentation, and digitalization work done by the conservator and the NAT for the solid light films. These were first considered as traditional silver films, and consequently the choice has been to make exhibition copies. Though, creating 16mm films appeared to cause specific technical problems, the main one being the need to get a double perforated film, which is only available today by special order to Kodak, and is expensive. The obstacles led the conservator to think about making a digital remake of the films. In order to know if this option would fit with the artist’s intention, Martin interviewed McCall and collected pieces of information about the history and the technique of the solid light films. Martin précised he had been “very careful not to apply his own proposition but to respect the original installation.” Finally, the choice was made to project the original installation on 16mm films, and to create new masters for all of the films, but for the future, the question of the digitalization remains open, especially because McCall says that he changes his mind all the time!
To a photography conservator, this talk was interesting, as it was bringing a different point of view on photographic material preservation and presentation. Indeed, even if the McCall artworks’ physical materiality is photographic, its existence is the result of the light passing through the film and extending into space. In this case, what has to be preserved and shown is not as much the film in itself (which has to be preserved too), but the light manifestation that results of it, and the sensation produced to the visitor who can penetrate it, which could indeed be reproduced by a digital copy… especially as the artist switched to digital projection in his 2000’s creations.
Martin ended the talk by saying that all the work done to preserve the installations started from the original films and materials, and he emphasized on the collaboration with the artist, which has been essential to achieve this project.