Lucy Raven at The Hammer Museum Fall 2012
by Tucker Neel
To create RP31, her latest installation at the Hammer museum, Lucy Raven first collected film test patterns, strips of celluloid used by projectionists for decades to calibrate focus for movie screenings. Each projector has it’s own test pattern, which screens before audiences take their seats. In this way the test patterns make intelligible vision possible while remaining intentionally invisible to the audience they aid. Raven then digitally scanned these test patterns, spliced them up, and printed them back to 35 mm celluloid. The resulting film sequences the images in a frenetic pulsating order on a Möbius strip attached to a hulking and loud projector placed on the floor of the museum’s darkened screening room. One is invited to sit on comfortable chairs to take in what is a truly unique and poetically critical visual experience.
In a rather comedic turn, Raven’s coagulation of pulsating test patterns are impossible to focus on, their images appearing for only a fraction of a second like some sort of subliminal messaging experiment. The test patters themselves are quite beautiful, with color gradations, starbursts, checkered black and white grids, pools of concentric circles, symmetrical lines of numbers and text, and gorgeous, light-illuminated blocks of pure color. When the stills overlap in one’s retinal memory they bring to mind Bauhaus color theory, Russian constructivist compositions, and of course the psychedelic experiments of Timothy Leary and the Merry Pranksters. While the intoxicating patterns draw the viewer in, it is Raven’s installation, combined with the history behind her work, which provides us with a much deeper critical proposition.
Through her collection of projection test patterns, Raven has become one of the only archivists of these important, yet hidden, features of cinematic history and has consequentially preserved one of the only physical signs to the projectionist’s presence preserved in film. In keeping with Raven’s interest in globalization and labor (her previous animations focusing on Chinese workers and the mining of natural resources), RP31 foregrounds the role of the film projectionist whose craft is integral to film history, yet threatened by the digital age and its new job positions. Sitting next to the whirring projector, with it’s clicking reels and humming motor emitting the unmistakable, perhaps nostalgic, smell of well-oiled gears and heated film, one cannot help but think of clashing technologies, the industrial revolution passing into a digital world, the trained projectionist with specialized knowledge giving way to the modern-day AV tech in charge of multiple media. In pondering this shift one jumps to questions of the concurrent movement of labor and technologies across increasingly globalized market-driven economies.
In addition to Raven’s work interrogating questions of presence and absence, viewer and worker, her underlying critique implicitly works to deconstructs heriarchies of power. Such a critique is made apparent by Raven’s choice to position her large projector on the floor in the room with the audience and not in the museum’s projectionist’s room a few feet above. This placement makes the projector both conspicuous and subject to analysis. The projector’s placement means the height of the film image is so low that one’s shadow easily interrupts the screening, as if to make one aware of one’s own presence, frustrating the clean line demarcating performer and audience. One is left to reflect on how all media that attempts to inform and entertain gains meaning from contingent relations of power, dependent on hierarchies and conventions made intentionally invisible. As a point of inspiration, Raven has given us an example of how these relations can be brought to light.