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Experiencing Some Technical Difficulties

Light Years: Conceptual Art and the Photograph, 1964–1977 highlights a time when artists were establishing contemporary art as a movement without a medium. Whereas we associate Impressionism most closely with painting and Roman art most closely with sculpture, the 1960s were a time when artists were experimenting with photography and video and bookmaking and site-specific installations and more. Which means lots and lots of different equipment. Walking through the show, I was immediately enamored by the hum emanating from the flickering film projectors and the warmth radiating from noisy auto-advance slide projectors. In this digital era of bytes and bits, the very physicality of the equipment supporting this exhibition seems so honest and real and, well, dated.

Though generally built in heavy steel, most of these analogue devices are surprisingly fragile. Marcel Broodthaers’ Model Cinema, 1970 consists of five 16mm films on five separate projectors. They’re grouped to honor people who influenced the direction of the artist’s work and they use custom mechanisms called ‘loopers’ which allow them to repeat endlessly. However, they were never designed to run day after day for eight continuous hours, so the projectors can mangle the film even with meticulous maintenance. Doug Severson, a photography conservator, has put together a maintenance toolkit of projector oils and film splicers sourced from his father’s time at Kodak long ago to fix the films when the timing goes awry.

Sourcing this quantity of aging media equipment also proved to be a challenge during the exhibition planning process. Yellow TVs, 1973 required black lighting to illuminate a fluorescent paint that seemingly pops out from the wall, reminiscent of a television screen. Because of the lighting that he was familiar with at the time, artist Tony Conrad would have expected an amplified hum from the lighting, sort of a television-like drone. But exhibition manager Michal Raz-Russo explained to me how fluorescents have progressed to be quiet and unobtrusive light sources—good for us, but undermining the intention of the work. As the story goes, technicians from our Physical Plant found old-style noisy lighting destined for the recycling bin just in time.

Bruce Nauman has two 1968 works on view from his holographic series which, under normal lighting conditions, simply looks like clouded pieces of glass. But our Media Production team found a local hologram expert who was knowledgeable about techniques used in the late 60s and he found a red laser typical of the time and calibrated it for the artwork. As far as we know, these works have not often been shown using light as it would have been conceived, making it a unique and fleeting opportunity to experience.

Come soon to enjoy the mechanical intermingled with the conceptual while the projectors are still looping – the show closes Sunday, March 11.

Image credits: Installation photographs of

16mm projectors with loopers for Marcel Broodthaers’ Model Cinema, 1970 and

Tony Conrad’s Yellow TVs, 1973.