Columns | FILM/ART: Reading Between the Lines with Bruce McClure

By Andréa Picard

“I think an artist is always working with limits, but these limits are extended and discovered. There’s an art of discovering new limits.”—Robert Smithson

“After all, wreckage is often more interesting than structure.”—Bruce McClure

Bruce McClure is an artist both increasingly known and unknown. His film performances have been featured (and cultishly coveted) in film festivals, galleries, cinematheques, and in various screening programs throughout the US, and in cities such as Rotterdam and Toronto. His name has become, in recent years, common currency in avant-garde circles, yet it takes time and effort to get to know his work, literally and conceptually. You must travel to see it, or if you’re lucky, it has to come to “a theatre near you.” He has twice been featured at the venerable Whitney Biennale, though he has not yet entered its permanent collection as his work poses a bona fide collecting quandary. His pieces are unique, but not in the sense of an object d’art, rather as an ephemeral experience. This can be difficult for a museum to grapple with for many reasons, including archiving, storage, display, fear of obsolescence, immeasurable value, and so on. In short, what would they collect and how would they show it?

McClure has been called a para-cinema artist, a proto-cinema artist, an expanded-cinema artist, and even a vaudevillian. A practicing architect whose draftsmanship has led to a fascinating excursion into sound experimentation, McClure, so goes the bio, “crossed over into the realm of the proto-cinematic as a consequence of trying to represent the beat of a metronome in time with the ultimate goal of laying down a line equal to the circumference of the earth at the equator. By recording the tempo and duration of his markings on paper he could calculate the distance traveled and what remained to complete a circumnavigation of the planet.” Witnessing him at work, alternating between a bank of projectors and a handmade soundboard, makes this goal seem all the more plausible and, perhaps even attainable. But there is definitely a leap. Just as the contradiction of his burgeoning renown is tempered by his difficult-to-see work, there’s another paradox at play. McClure’s practice engenders both a leap forward and a leap back, to a time of analogue physicality. By using cinema’s basic (and mechanical) elements of light, darkness, and sound, he is forging a new language. It’s not photographic, neither is it particularly cinematic (which we are all guilty of ascribing to the realm of the photographic). Is it a form of sculpture or audio-visual composition? We’ve seen the sculptural phase of moving-image art, a seminal shift that has radicalized the gallery space—pieces by Anthony McCall, Bruce Nauman, Paul Sharrits, et al., built up through the display of technical apparatuses, and the three-dimensional girth of projected light or talking monitors. If light is McClure’s primary visual tool and the sonically amplified sprocket hole is his ultimate sound instrument, what, then, do we call his art?

McClure’s work is most commonly referred to as “modified projector performance,” and instrument analogies are not far-flung. The projector is played, experimented with before and during performances. McClure makes use of metal plates fitted into the film shoe assembly, ink dyes “sneezed” onto clear leader, sound-effect pedals, a handmade black screen, and other such adornments in his interference into the normative course of film projection. There’s something baroque about his methods, yet they are strangely minimal at the same time, as if channeling the seriality of the ‘60s, whether it be Sol Lewitt or the under-explored Hanne Darboven. He’s right when he says that we (critics, curators, artists, human beings) look for comparisons to provide structure as an escape from the abyss. Through its singularity, innovation and zealous rigour, McClure’s work elicits searching responses; they are, in a sense, testaments to his efforts and outcomes. Or maybe they result from the primeval sounds and flickering light that engulf the audience. A visceral experience transcends words, as we know, but can we help grasping for language?

He’s certainly not alone in the field of projector performance. Duo Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder enjoy an international following and are in the Whitney’s collection. McClure’s permutations seem stricter, as if working from a spider’s stratagem, perhaps eluding certain institutional successes. I hesitate to say more, as I came to his work rather late, and have only seen/heard him perform a memorable three times. He blew my mind on each occasion. Rather than delving deep into aporia, McClure saved me by kindly agreeing to indulge the following questions. It may help to read between the lines.

CINEMA SCOPE: You’ve been variously described as a proto-cinema artist, a para-cinema artist, a projector performer, an expanded cinema artist. What best describes what you do? Do you consider yourself a filmmaker or an artist, both, a performer, or a combination thereof?

BRUCE McCLURE: I usually refer to what I do as projection performance. It describes what happens as a part of a larger theatrical experience witnessed by a seated audience poised to exit but with only a few leaving. I don’t consider myself a filmmaker and often point out that Kodak or some other industrial giant makes the film. I will admit to using film, but only after having pointed out that I avoided it for several years and making some reference to the small quantities I use on any occasion. I still have a resistance to using the a—-t word because it creates so many expectations in those who hear it. Performer is a word I tend to favour. I often have in mind the person who plays cymbals, drum, a horn or some assembly of instrumentation while struggling to keep everything moving for a gathering who stops to watch. The honking feature flaps its wings in a cloud of down.

SCOPE: As a creator of cinema experiences rather than physical films, have you devised a personal archiving system? Do you ever perform works from years back?

McCLURE: I use boxes and plastic bags as my archiving system and what seem to be precise notes to the future. In label boxes I store materials and try to identify the original film loop sources to distinguish them from prints. I do this because I look forward to the opportunity to exhume the remains, but in the end it’s always like trying to decipher last month’s bills. Recent work constantly brings me to a retracing of worn paths causing me to note that I can never put my foot in it the same way.

SCOPE: Your latest work, such as Evertwo Circumflicksrent…Page 298, seem increasingly pared down in terms of image and the information that is on the filmstrip. Are you consciously following a certain trajectory, such as a more refined, stripped down audio-visual language?

McCLURE: Earlier I liked the idea of accumulating so much on the screen that it would be difficult to see what I was doing, or at least creating a situation in which only turning the thing off would amount to real change. Now for the sake of a swing I’m heading the other way, out of necessity. First there was the question, “How many projectors do I need?” I answered, “Four, one for each side of the rectangle.” Now I’m answering the same question with a breeze from behind by saying, “Two, one for each eye and one for each ear.” Evertwo, the optical glow hankie waves, and the second glow is hearing signals.

SCOPE: How do you choose your enigmatic titles? Their application can sometimes be compellingly oblique.

McCLURE: Thanks! Most often I turn to my bookshelves to find combinations of words that seem to suit some aspect of a work I’m looking to title. When I’m looking, finding comes along as a happy companion, its services intricate and not humourless. Most recently I’ve decided to use my concordance on Finnegans Wake, and looking up flicker found “Evertwo Circumflicksrent” on page 298. I included the page number to really dust the trail marker clean, sending attention off.

SCOPE: Do you mean for your titles to provide a fiction (or a layer of fiction) for the work, one that invariably, or perhaps arguably, stems from any abstraction during reception?

McCLURE: I’ll say and maybe you’re saying that abstraction is maybe the first fiction and I add to that another no less vital and real in the compost heap beyond the garden wall. Abstract is out of our world and I can’t understand that, although on certain days there’s an odour and it sure does make the tomatoes grow! The everything is zippered up in the brain, measurable and concrete, and although difficult to peg down I enjoy tracing over the convolutions.

SCOPE: Equally engrossing and sometimes enigmatic are the film descriptions
you write to accompany the works. Are these also performative to a degree?

McCLURE: I often work as hard on these “film treatments” as I do on the performances themselves. They partake of the promise of a future space hushed and in need of displacement. The written notes are intended to occupy before or as the lights come down when everything is thrown against the wall. Held in the hands, read at close quarters, the words are on the page…the lights down only afterimages of my sufferings and squeals of joy…a spectacle in a succession of spectacles.

SCOPE: Perhaps second only to “immersive,” the adjective most used to describe your work is “intense.” No doubt any sustained flicker is intense, but the high decibel sound that you create can be extremely intimidating. Very visceral. Have you had extreme reactions to your works?

McCLURE: Extreme reactions…how could I call them extreme? Reactions are many. Usually the suffering party is out of the room before I have any awareness. Somehow people endure the diesel siren and rotary flash of the fire truck. They put their fingers in their ears. Others travel on errands with earplugs or add another blanket with smorgasbord music. I have tried binoculars, monocular, and waving my fingers in front of my eyes at speeds approximating the flicker of the projector shutter. It’s all torture, whether you elect to participate or are involuntarily subjected to it. To me, it’s an experience of nature like a rainy day or being overwhelmed by vertigo in an assault of snow blindness.

SCOPE: Was your decision to go camera-less a polemical one? When did this transition occur?

McCLURE: I’d say that the polemics came after I identified that operating a camera was expensive and had too many moving parts. It was probably around 1994, and there were pictures everywhere so I didn’t buy a camera choosing to use slug. Slug is exposed footage that’s used for its sprocket holes as a place keeper during editing. It had a lot of old television programs on it with a scratch down the middle. Then there was clear leader, and you could build up your own emulsion—time consuming and the projector could just eat it up feet at a time. Multiple projections in bars and factory parties—the projector was king. Then the purchase of a 16mm viewfinder Bolex in 1997, or so, that I used for some things, but then set aside to return to doing it my way, thinking that one would get lost in the framing of a picture, and perhaps it would be better to work with the projector to get rid of the frame. Abandon the camera except the Super 8 altar.

SCOPE: How much of your work relies on intuition versus variations of an equation? From how you’ve spoken about your work, it seems as though you engage variables of a formula, such as seriality, for example.

McCLURE: The primordial soup, amino acids, and whatnots globing together in an atmosphere with lightening bolts and you have it! I’ve isolated certain variables just to have a flotation device to cling onto. Sometimes I’ll let it slip and plunge into the darkness with the hope of coming up with some hideous sea creature that will grow on me. All you really need to do is stay afloat and keep paddling across the surface and you’ll run across something that has two heads that cannot be resolved until it turns and you see that they share the same body that has pretty feathers. The equation is in the theatre, as are the variables. Seriality is something that I think I only dally with.

SCOPE: Your work has been compared to Sol Lewitt, Anthony McCall, Marcel Duchamp, John Cage. Not a bad provenance if you believe in it. Does this ring true?

McCLURE: I wonder who was making these comparisons. I’m happy with these associations but know too that we tend to grasp onto things by the protuberances that are most convenient. I have been variously interested in all of their work for the past 30 years or so, and always look forward to seeing some version of McCall’s work.

SCOPE: Morgan Fisher has said that he does not edit, he constructs. Would you say that you also construct, or, rather, compose? Your interest in sound seems to predate your interest in film. Can you tell me how or where the two met for you?

McCLURE: I like the verb “I construct, etc…” Not compose since I can’t write music, and the scores I leave behind are metal plates, projectors, and some film with patterns —integral factors 1-24. Materials for a written score—some kind of writing. I’ve measured it and it’s 24 frames between the optical axis and the light axis of the optical sound system—actually they tell me that the industry standard is 26. No matter, I’ve measured it as best as I could and it’s 24. Standard stoppages. Sound and film came together in the 16mm film projector!

SCOPE: Do you have any formal training in music?

McCLURE: Some, when I was learning that I had no aptitude.

SCOPE: Do you work with a metronome?

McCLURE: Yes, I have four, three with a swing, one electronic.

SCOPE: Watching the beam can be a beautiful experience. Anthony McCall’s Line Describing a Cone (1973) is a perfect example of this sublime magic, albeit one transposed from the cinema into a gallery space. Would you agree that your work also privileges the projector’s light beam?

McCLURE: It privileges the projector’s glassy face. Looking at the aperture onto the lighthouse sight patterned in time. The beams are there, too, but not so modulated in an instance of light and dark, but as instances of light and not.

SCOPE: Is there a “best seat in the house” for your performances? I’ve noticed that audience members, myself included, alternate from watching the screen and craning their necks around to watch you at work.

McCLURE: I’d say wherever you’re comfortable. This might change once the thing gets going but feel free to move away from the speakers or closer or turn the rectangle, if there is one, into a squashed trapezoid.

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