Projectionist Please Read!
Projection Instructions as Film Literature
Decatur Book Festival, August 30 - 31, 2014
curated by Andy Ditzler


Notes on items in the exhibition        Exhibition checklist

Live Actions

Morgan Fisher
Projection Instructions, 1976
16mm film, black & white, sound
4 minutes
screened on Saturday, August 30

Ken Jacobs
Blonde Cobra, 1963
16mm film, black & white and color, sound, live radio soundtrack
33 minutes

Blonde Cobra was edited by Ken Jacobs from the wreckage of abandoned underground productions starring the seminal queer photographer, filmmaker, and performer Jack Smith. It has become a classic of the New York underground, a portrait of the artist among the psychic and physical detritus of 60s Lower East Side despair.

Over sixty years of filmmaking and performing, Jacobs has made many interventions into and subversions of standard projection practice, with political implications never far from the picture and often explicit. In a set of notes taped to the inside of the film can for Blonde Cobra, Jacobs requires that contemporary talk radio or newscasts be played during two scenes of the film – a visionary instruction which ensures that while the images of Blonde Cobra stay the same, the sound stays current. The viewing audience is forcefully reminded of their contemporary context through the sound, and also forced to make connections between their own era and that of the protagonists.

Modifying the Room

Beverly Conrad and Tony Conrad
Four Square, 1971
16mm film in quadruple projection, color, separate stereo soundtrack on tape
18 minutes

Tony Conrad
Operator Domains Landscape

Four Square uses four simultaneously running projectors to create the kind of radical perceptual phenomena which Tony Conrad had been exploring since his first film, The Flicker. Affixed to the box containing the film are instructions for how and in what spatial configuration to project the four reels. All must be started simultaneously, requiring a complex synchronization – or perhaps the presence of four different projectionists. A separate reel with the stereo reel-to-reel tape soundtrack is also included. A hand-drawn diagram within the instruction confirms the positions of the projectors, as well as that of the viewer inside the event; as Branden Joseph quotes Conrad, "The audience, seated in the four corners of the room, can take in at once all four screens (the light reaching their brains via four points on their optic nerve) and [the light from] two of the projectors, of which one is situated just in front of them."

Conrad also produced a diagram for Four Square titled Operator Domains Landscape. This archival document is a visual representation of the film's eighteen minutes, with the running time noted on the wheel in the center. At lower left, the "non-adapted audience" enters the event, and exits afterward to re-adapt to ambient light. In between, they are taken through a complex set of visual and conceptual phenomena, including "wide-field illumination" and "image simulation," flicker, color illusion, and afterimage – all effects brought about by the interaction of the film’s imagery with the act of projection.

Lynn Marie Kirby
Fish and Liposuction, 1990
16mm film, black & white, soundtrack on tape, bubbles
10 minutes

Fish and Liposuction, according to its instruction sheet, consists of 16mm film "+ sound + bubbles." The audience is asked to blow bubbles in the path of the projector light, filling the air with tiny reflective surfaces, each one a mini-screen that is itself reflected on the large screen.

A recipe for bubble liquid is helpfully supplied. Though the filmmaker suggests that a bubble machine may be used instead, the social interactions brought about by passing out bubble materials and blowing bubbles communally are a rich backdrop for the film's subject of women's cosmetic surgery.

Malcolm Le Grice
Castle 1, 1966
16mm film, black & white, sound, with flashing light bulb installed in room
17 minutes

Castle 1 comes with a separate can containing a "winker light," a light bulb which the projectionist flashes on and off during the program. (Note that because of the distance between projector and bulb, the tasks of projecting the film and flashing the light bulb will likely be split between two people; yet both must here be called "projectionists.") Le Grice’s charming typewritten instructions for the use of the flashing bulb include hand drawings of previous positions; but they otherwise give the organizer/projectionists wide latitude for the bulb's installation.

Double Projections

Barbara Rubin
Christmas On Earth, 1963
16mm film in double projection, black & white with color filters, live or pre-recorded soundtrack
30 minutes

Filmed by seventeen-year-old Barbara Rubin over one weekend in 1963, the remarkable Christmas on Earth is probably the most sexually explicit film to come from the 1960s New York underground cinema. The free-love orgy depicted, complete with body paint, was several years ahead of the psychedelic counterculture, and so was the film: a double-projection in 16mm with color filters and a shifting soundtrack of then-current pop radio – or, on occasion, a live music soundtrack provided by an early version of the Velvet Underground, who were then just another part of the same downtown underground scene.

But Christmas on Earth is something other than a document from a bygone age, for its required projection technique contains still-visionary elements. Renting the 16mm print, one receives two reels, "outer" and "inner," with Rubin's typewritten instructions taped to the inside of the can. These reels are to be projected simultaneously, superimposed on each other, with the inner reel closer to the screen (thus creating a smaller image "inside" the outer reel). Transparent color filters are included; these may be held in front of the projector lens by the projectionist (or, if the projectors are in the screening room, by members of the audience). These color filters transfer the black & white footage into various shades of color.

Perhaps the most fruitful of Rubin's projection instructions is for the soundtrack. The footage is silent, so Rubin directs that a radio must be playing "with a nice cross-section of psychic tumult." Included with the rental are a set of music CDs with either Velvet Underground music or a selection of period pop music such as the Supremes and Jimi Hendrix. Over the years however, Rubin's reference to "psychic tumult" has been interpreted by some projectionists and curators to mean what would currently be tumultuous – ensuring that this 1963 footage will often be seen with a contemporary soundtrack, perhaps not even music. Rubin’s visionary equation of "psychic tumult" with free love carries the same charge across conflicting emotional states that contemporary sounds carry across time to the imagery of long-ago lovemaking.

Paul Sharits
Shutter Interface, 1975
16mm film in double projection with movable projectors, color, stereo sound
24 minutes

Beginning with Razor Blades in 1968, Paul Sharits created an extensive body of double projection films in 16mm, some of which were among the series he called "locational" works – existing in galleries in addition to or rather than theaters, and in which spectators could position themselves in different places for viewing.

Sharits is best known for his dynamic "flicker" technique of color frames – red, orange, blue, purple, yellow and other solid color frames organized into complex patterns. Shutter Interface is a particularly moving work in this mode. It was originally made in a version for four projectors with overlapping frames, shown in an art gallery. Sharits then made an "economical" two-projector version for theatrical screenings. There are two possible versions for the theatrical Shutter Interface. Version A is set up in the style of the gallery piece, with two stationary projectors and the color frames each overlapping by one-third. This presents a wider image than normal, and also presents three different color fields on the screen. The left third is the color on the left projector; the right third is the color on the right projector; and the middle third is the color created by the superimposed combination of whatever the left and right colors are at that moment (since the middle third is the overlap of the two projectors). Each color only lasts from one-twelfth to one-third of a second, so Shutter Interface presents a rich, ever-shifting mosaic of color. On the film strip, a single black frame separates each color group, and a single soft, high-pitched tone sounds on each of these black frames.

Version B asks the projectionist to gradually move the projectors together over the course of the screening. A graphic diagram shows the positions of the two projectors over the duration of the film: it begins with the two frames completely separate and ends with the two frames exactly superimposed. As the film progresses, what were separate images merge completely. The film moves from two independent color fields to one color field made up of two interdependent parts. The individual frames can no longer be seen, only their combination into a whole.

Sharits claimed to have keyed the frame rates of Shutter Interface to his own biological rhythms. This, together with the projection technique of gradually merging frames, gives Version B resonant political and emotional overtones – the relation of the individual to the collective, the aesthetic to the political, and the personal to the universal.

Works by Guy Sherwin

Guy Sherwin
Railings, 1977
16mm film in sideways projection, black & white, sound
9 minutes

Railings #2, 1977
16mm film in sideways projection and double projection, black & white, sound
9 minutes

Cycles #3, 1972/2003
16mm film in double projection, black & white, stereo sound, amber filter
7 minutes

Newsprint #2, 1972/2003
Performance for two projectionists
16mm film in double projection with freeze-frames, black & white, sound
9-12 minutes

Guy Sherwin and Lynn Loo
Vowels & Consonants, 2005/2006
Performance for two projectionists
16mm film loops, six projectors, sound with optional live music soundtrack

Few filmmakers have worked as extensively with the idea of projection as performance than the British artist Guy Sherwin. Since the early 1970s, Sherwin has made a body of work that investigates the nature of the film medium as the projection of still images into motion, as optical sound, as carrier of meaning via language, as an expression of duration, as photochemical process, and in many other ways. His work is both artistic and truly experimental: each of his films constitutes a direct act of research into the film medium, and also results in a compelling, often playful, viewing experience.

This selection of works shows how Sherwin has often repurposed (sometimes decades later) earlier films as multiple projector works, for performing projectionists. Often, as with his collaborations with Lynn Loo, he and Loo are themselves the projectionists. The act of projection becomes a part of the artistic activity of the filmmaker, and a part of the experiment as well.

Projection Scripts

Jennifer Reeves
Light Work Mood Disorder, 2007
16mm film in double projection, color, separate stereo soundtrack
26 minutes

A latter-day example of 16mm double projection is Jennifer Reeves' Light Work Mood Disorder, which combines found footage with Reeves' characteristically spectacular hand-painted framework. Reeves wrote two sets of instructions for screening the film. The first is basic, and the second is an advanced one "for really ambitious, confident projectionists, or those just interested in the process."

Though this latter script contains precise timings for the imagery in relation to the CD soundtrack, Reeves' introductory note acknowledges a technological fact which all double projectionists have experienced: two identical projectors almost never run at precisely identical speeds. Reeves edited her film to take this enforced flexibility into account, and also indicates that between the vagaries of projector speeds and those of projectionists' timing, there is a philosophy to be found that is not only flexible, but forgiving: "Variability in screenings keeps it interesting anyway."

Andy Warhol
The Chelsea Girls, 1966
16mm film in double projection, black & white and color, sound
210 minutes

A great deal of Andy Warhol's voluminous film work depends on being modified in the act of projection. His early silent films – including such notorious works as the eight-hour Empire – must be projected at "silent speed": sixteen (now usually eighteen) frames per second, or one-third slower than the twenty-four frame-per-second standard for sound film. This act slows the action onscreen, introduces a slight flicker into the image, and lengthens the running time of the original reels. All of these effects are due to projection, not to editing or shooting.

When Warhol moved to sound filmmaking he continued to experiment with alternate forms of projection, most notably the multi-projector, multimedia environment he constructed around the Velvet Underground in 1966 (known as the Exploding Plastic Inevitable), and the introduction of split-screen (double) projection into narrative films. As Warhol's commercial breakthrough, The Chelsea Girls may be the most famous of all double-projection films. Included with rentals of the 16mm film prints are projection instructions indicating when to begin the reels, and when to turn sound up or down on the twelve different reels that make up the film.

However, these precise instructions were not in place at the film's debut. Screening practice for The Chelsea Girls was developed over time. The original projectionist, filmmaker Robert Cowan, described Warhol dropping off the reels for the premiere, with only vague instructions. Over a series of subsequent screenings, Cowan, as the film's original "interpreter," took wide license, including much experimentation with the soundtracks, adding color filters to the black & white footage, projecting through different lenses, superimposing the reels onto each other, and even throwing the image around the room through the use of a mirror. Reel order and sound seem to have been quickly established, but during its initial run, one wonders just how many "versions" of The Chelsea Girls were seen – the differences between them brought about not by the film but by the act of its projection.

Projectable Different Directions

Antoni Pinent
KINOSTURM KUBELKA/16 Variaciones, 2009
35mm film, black & white
1.5 minutes

The title KINOSTURM KUBELKA refers to the well-known Austrian avant-garde filmmaker Peter Kubelka, maker of the influential 1960 "metric film" Arnulf Rainer. Arnulf Rainer consisted solely of black and white frames in 35mm, in highly organized visual and sonic patterns.

In tribute, Antoni Pinent divided Arnulf Rainer by four. 35mm has four holes per frame – actually eight holes, four on each side of the strip. (These holes are what make movement of the film through the projector possible, since they are "grabbed" by sprockets on rotating wheels.) Using Kubelka's system of organizing black & white frames, Pinent divided each 35mm frame into four and assigned each fourth of a frame either black or white.

Because there is a set of four sprocket holes on each side of the film strip, a frame of KINOSTURM KUBELKA can be seen four different ways: right side up, upside down, right side up and backwards, upside down and backwards. It all depends on how one chooses to load the film into the projector. Further, because each frame is divided into four, and the imagery consists solely of black or white, the usual framelines no longer apply; any individual sprocket hole could potentially be the top hole of a frame. Thus, there are sixteen different ways to project KINOSTURM KUBELKA. There is no "leader" or cue for the projectionist to line up the "right" perforation in the projector; therefore, "randomness makes the projector decide which version of the 16 projects."

No Film/All Films

Maïa Cybelle Carpenter
Sans Titre, 2001
16mm film, color
6-8 minutes

Projectionists normally avoid running the end of a print all the way through the machine, since whatever is after the final imagery is not considered part of the film. However, Maïa Cybelle Carpenter's Sans Titre (2001) calls for the projectionist to do exactly this. But further, she asks the projectionist to wait an additional thirty to sixty seconds after the film runs out, before turning off the projector's light. Thus, Carpenter incorporates an absence of film into her own film. In doing so, she also expands Sans Titre into a work longer than the length of film on its reel.

In most situations, allowing a film to run completely out and projecting with no film in the projector would be considered distractions from the work. Here they are part of the work. Carpenter's instructions are appropriately designed to reflect this "rupture" in practice. On the outside of the film can, we see that she (or perhaps a staff member) has cut in two pieces Canyon Cinema’s normal circular sticker with standard projection warnings, in order to replace the usual text with her own ATTENTION PROJECTIONIST notice. She finishes her short text with a sentence that suggests a philosophical statement on the medium as much as a projection instruction: "This white light is part of the film."

Hollis Frampton
A Lecture, 1968
Pre-recorded spoken lecture on tape or CD, 16mm film projector at 18 frames per second, transparent red filter, pipe cleaner, no film
21 minutes
courtesy Harvard Film Archive
A Lecture is performed by Andy Ditzler on Saturday, August 30

PROJECTIONIST PLEASE READ! is supported by a grant from artDBF, part of the AJC Decatur Book Festival

PROJECTIONIST PLEASE READ! is a Film Love event, programmed and hosted by Andy Ditzler for Frequent Small Meals. Through public screenings and events, Film Love provides access to rarely seen films, preserves the communal viewing experience, provides space for the discussion of film as art, and explores alternative forms of moving image projection and viewing. Film Love was voted Best Film Series in Atlanta by the critics of Creative Loafing in 2006, and was featured in Atlanta Magazine's Best of Atlanta 2009.

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