Anthony McCall emerged on the art scene in the experimental heyday of the early 1970s. As part of the London Film-Makers Co-operative, his work was also associated with expanded cinema. Combining performance and film, he sought to deconstruct and reduce cinema to its principle components; projecting geometric line drawings to assert the structural qualities of light in time and space.

Moving to New York in the mid-decade, McCall immersed himself in the conceptual art, minimalist and happenings movements. Rubbing shoulders with the likes of Mel Bochner, Allan Kaprow, Sol LeWitt, Yvonne Rainer, Carolee Schneemann, Richard Serra, and Gordon Matta-Clark, McCall became an important fixture of the Soho avant-garde. Toward the end of the 1970s, he withdrew from art but, aided by new digital technology, returned to the practice 25-years later.

Today, his Solid Light Works are shown at major venues, including Tate Modern in London, Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin and MoMA in New York. On the occasion of his solo show at Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works this winter, DAMN° spoke to McCall about light, technology, and the changed perception of his oeuvre.

DAMN°: What first drew you to film?

Anthony McCall:
I came to the medium out of necessity. In the early Seventies I was making performances. Somehow, this medium presupposes documentation. I thought that the only way to record my fire performances was through film. What struck me though, when showing my first 16mm ‘fire’ film to colleagues, was that even though the performance was my primary focus, what the audience was actually looking at was a film on a screen.

I began to wonder if it would be possible to make a film that only existed at the moment of projection, in the same present tense as the audience occupying the room in which it was shown. My answer was a film called Line Describing a Cone (1973). In this piece, the projection gradually took the form of a volumetric cone suspended in mid-air. The audience and the projection shared the same space.

DAMN°: Describe how you give shape to light. How do the installations respond to people in the space?

A.M: There’s a simple principle: a two-dimensional circle on the screen will produce a three-dimensional conical form in space. As much as my works are about light, the way a work of mine is structured in time is more primary, together with the speed at which the forms move and change. At first it might appear that the Solid Light Works are static sculptures – they are barely moving – and visitors will usually begin to explore the forms as sculptural objects, occupying them, moving through them, and so on. As they proceed they begin to notice that the forms are slowly changing, and that they are playing with two forms of slow motion: their own, and that of the projection itself. It is my guess that this structure of slow change is what produces the pleasure.

DAMN°: How has the perception of your work changed since the 1970s?

A.M: My early audiences were small groups of fellow artists, who were often working on related ideas. Now the audiences are far more mixed and can be much larger; at some exhibitions now, visitor numbers may climb to one thousand a day. Though I haven’t changed the way I work that much, the social media generation, interested in virtual reality, seem to have found qualities they recognise in my work.

DAMN°: You returned to the work after an extended hiatus. What advancements in technology have affected your work?

A.M: The through-line remains the same – I project light into three-dimensional space with the idea that it is experienced as both sculpture and cinema. However, after starting again I was able to work with new digital projection technology. This allowed me to create vertical installations, which was impossible to do with the old 16mm film projectors. For me, digital technology is actually closer to sketching by hand and using an eraser to quickly change something. Working with film involved far more guesswork; but working with editing software, I’m able to make adjustments immediately. Using computers also removes the need for a projectionist, who was once part of the ‘performance’. Now we make ‘installations’. In the past people smoked, which helped give form to the light. Today, I use a haze machine, which is a lot more effective.

DAMN°: How important are the dimensions of the spaces in which Solid Light Works are installed?

A.M: Though I look carefully at floor plans and I walk through the spaces in which I will be exhibiting, I rarely create site-specific works. Instead, each work comes with its own parameters. I’ve found that a 10-metre throw (the clearance from ceiling to floor, or wall to wall) is the optimal measurement for both horizontal and vertical works. The scale relates to Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man drawing: If you stand in the centre of one of the installations, you should be able stretch out and touch all sides of the projected skin. I wouldn’t really be able to make an installation if a space is under eight metres. Pioneer Work’s 10-metre ceiling and 60-metre long hall offered the perfect conditions, which are hard to find in New York. As with other exhibitions, I carefully arranged multiple pieces and, in turn, I was able to establish a new whole.

Anthony McCall, Sprüth Magers, London, until 31 March,

Anthony McCall: Solid Light Works, The Hepworth, Wakefield, UK, until 3 June,

This article appeared in DAM67. Order your personal copy.