Interview by Lauren Ross
. . .
Anthony McCall has established--and re-established--himself as a pioneer of the use of light, a medium that he uses both sculpturally and temporally. He began his career in London where, inspired by Structuralist filmmakers, he developed his earliest works to go against the grain of narrative cinematic conventions. Shortly after moving to New York City in 1973, he launched what has become his best known series of works: the “solid-light” pieces, beginning with Line Describing a Cone. Simultaneously physical and ephemeral, these works project moving beams of light, given visual solidity with, at first, dust and cigarette-smoke, and later, artificial mist generated by haze machines. After a twenty-year hiatus in the 1980s and ‘90s, he returned to these light works in the 2000s. McCall has stated that he has made thirty years of work based on the very simple observation that if you turn around in the movie theater to look at the beam of light from the projector, “there’s something there.” While this humbly reductive quip doesn’t do justice to the moving power of his work, there is truth in the observation that he has made a career of playing with variations on elegantly simple principles. We recently sat down to discuss his application of these principles to several new, large-scale, public art commissions.
Lauren Ross: Can you describe the public art pieces in development?
ANTHONY McCALL: I am in the process of building Projected Column, which will take the form of a column of cloud that rises into the sky. This is a project that I had been developing for a few years, and then in 2009, the Arts Council of England and the Cultural Olympiad invited artists to make proposals for public works that would be displayed in different regions of the UK at the time of the 2012 Olympics. I proposed Projected Column, which won the commission for the North-West. It will take place in Birkenhead, on the estuary of the River Mersey, directly opposite the city of Liverpool. The Column will have a diameter of about 80 feet and a height of a couple of miles. From a distance, it will resemble a curvilinear, vertical line drawn in the sky. In fact it is a more-or-less invisible column of spinning, warm air rising up, but the outer surface, where it comes into contact with the surrounding, colder air, condenses to form a boundary layer of visible cloud.
Ross: What is the technology you are using to create it?
McCALL: There are radiating pipes just beneath the surface of the water. Air and heat is forced through them and this causes the water to slowly rotate until a vortical convection current begins to form. When the warm air rises, rather than dissipating in every direction, it rises as a whirling tube, and it maintains that form as it continues upwards.
Ross: So it creates a funnel?
McCALL: Perhaps more like a virtual ‘flue’. It’s cylindrical. Its closest relative in the natural world would be a waterspout.
Ross: And it’s mostly condensation that creates the column?
McCALL: Yes. The condensation is on the outer surface, where the warm air of the column comes into contact with the cold air surrounding it. The visibility of the column is based entirely on this boundary layer. My hope is that I will have considerable control over visibility, but it is a little too early to know just how much. I would like to be able to set up a cyclical structure of appearance, disappearance and re-appearance. But what I don’t know yet is the degree to which nature will also have a say in this. Visibility is also controlled by the natural elements of ‘weather’: humidity, air pressure, temperature, light, and so on, and my structure will obviously have to respect these.
Ross: It relies on daylight during and day, and will it be lit artificially at night?
McCALL: During the day, the column of cloud will be visible because it’s lit by natural, ambient light. Birkenhead has estuary weather--it’s constantly changing, it rains often, the sun comes and goes, there is low cloud cover followed by clear blue sky, and so on. All these changes will produce changes in the appearance of the column. At night, the column will be self-illuminated, from underwater flames. The light from these flames will be transmitted upwards by the boundary-layer of cloud, suggesting a pulsing column of fire.
Ross: How far from shore will it be?
McCALL: It is actually on land, just to the side of the River Mersey. Birkenhead was once one of the major UK ports and an important ship-building center. That period is over but there is still a network of deep-water docks, many of them disused. We are using one of these as the launching site for the Column.
Ross: And your main collaborator is a scientist?
McCALL: Yes, John McNulty, a scientist/inventor I’ve known since I was in my twenties. We met in 1968 or 1969, when I was first out of art school. We then worked together for a couple of years.
Ross: Have you collaborated on artworks in the past?
McCALL: No. The things we did back then were just things that interested us. It was a moment when all sorts of possibilities connected to technology, computers, new materials and so on, were in the air, and also a moment when art and technology discovered one another. But after I moved to New York we lost touch, until about five years ago, when John and I began comparing notes again. I have always worked with mist, most recently simply as a way to make my planes of solid-light visible. One of the things we discussed was how mist itself might be shaped. This was when the idea for the Column began to emerge.
Ross: And are there environmental scientists involved? It seems like it would require a team of people… the scale, the material, it’s very ambitious and experimental.
McCALL: Actually, there isn’t a large team involved. On the technical side there is John and a colleague with whom he works closely, plus a consulting engineer.
Ross: And how long is the planned run of the piece?
McCALL: The commission is for 18-months, so unless its life is extended, it will be a temporary sculpture.
Ross: One of the nice things about an 18-month run is that you will have a complete seasonal cycle.
McCALL: We will. The piece should launch officially at the end of 2011, and it will continue until the summer of 2013.
Ross: And the commission in New Zealand will happen around the same time?
McCALL: Yes, a piece for the city of Auckland entitled Light House, which will open in October 2011. Part of their waterfront used to be industrial, with freighters coming-and-going, and wharves carpeted with cylindrical storage-tanks and silos. Like many cities, this industrial period is in the past and the part of the waterfront once devoted to it will be re-developed as a mixed-use area, a combination of recreational space, marine services, business, residential, and so on. The storage tanks will disappear, but the largest silo, a 115-foot windowless, concrete cylinder right on the waterfront, facing the harbor, is to be retained. I was invited by Auckland City Council to make a proposal for this silo.
Ross: What did you propose?
McCALL: The silo is essentially an internal void, with a flat top. My proposed piece has three components: an unbroken, cylindrical dark space inside, which will become a "receiving-chamber" for shafts of sunlight; an observation-deck on the flat top, providing a 360-degree view of the harbor and the city; and immediately above the observation-deck we will install a rotating lighthouse mechanism, essentially a projector that will sweep the harbor with a blade of light.
Ross: You described the silo as "windowless." How does it admit sunlight?
McCALL: By making a series of parallel, vertical cuts in its skin. The silo has uninterrupted exposure to Auckland’s harbor and to the full arc of the sun from sunrise to sunset. To receive the sun continuously, I’ve calculated that we will need four cuts. And each cut will need to be flared, rather like an archer’s window in a medieval castle, only the flare will be facing outwards rather than facing in. Each aperture will be almost the full height of the void.
Ross: So the arc of the sun rotates around the curved surface of the cylindrical building?
McCALL: Exactly. And each vertical aperture in turn, admits one part of the arc. Inside the ‘receiving-chamber’ this produces a very dynamic situation. A sixty-foot high, slanting blade of light, will creep slowly round the void constantly adjusting both its vertical and horizontal angle, and shifting progressively from one aperture to the next. Three times during the day, for about one hour each time, the sun will enter two apertures simultaneously. At that moment we’ll see two planes, moving in parallel.
Ross: In your solid-light installations, you use mist to make visible the planes of light in space. Will you use something like this in the silo?
McCALL: Yes, haze machines will be part of the installation, and for exactly the same reason. Without the haze, there would just be the line of the aperture projected onto the wall and floor. The plane of light needs to be experienced as a space-occupying, three-dimensional, shifting presence within the dark cylinder.
Ross: Your installations also usually include a corridor leading to the projection space to prevent unwanted light entering the dark room. How will visitors enter the silo, and how will you keep light out?
McCALL: The void starts about thirty feet above the ground, so the first problem is getting people up there. Then there is the additional problem of letting unwanted light in. Plus, one of the things that I decided early on was that we should not puncture that perfect cylindrical space with staircases, corridors, or elevator or service spines. I wanted there to be a very pure, simple cylindrical room about seventy-five feet in height and about half that in diameter. So I decided that the elevator and services should come up as a smaller, secondary tower on the outside of the silo. Visitors will enter by elevator onto a floor immediately beneath the void, and then walk up a very gradually sloping ramp, which will follow the curve of the outside wall. So the ramp will offer a slow transition from the lit entry space, up into the dark space above it.
Ross: And the external elevator will also carry visitors up onto the observation deck?
McCALL: Yes, and provide access to the lighthouse mechanism.
Ross: How will the lighthouse function?
McCALL: Obviously, it has no warning function, like a proper maritime lighthouse. It operates as part of a work of art. The two types of projection – projection by the sun into the dark void inside the silo, and projection by the electric lighthouse across the harbor are, of course, symmetrically related. The sun-projection operates during the day, and projects inwards; and the lighthouse projection operates during the night, and projects outwards. Their arcs of projection will be more or less the same, about 180 degrees. It is important that the symmetries are recognized, and it is important that the sweep functions as the nighttime pulse for the piece, but I am not sure yet how many repetitions are necessary to create this. It may be as often as once a minute, or it may be as few as once an hour. I’m just not sure. I may opt for the latter, but have it rotate through its arc at an unusually slow speed.
Ross: Tell me about the bridge project.
McCALL: Crossing the Hudson. About four years ago, I was invited by Diane Shamash and her Minetta Brook Foundation to make a proposal for a work connected to the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge, a late nineteenth-century steel freight-train bridge that spans the Hudson River about seventy miles north of Manhattan.
Ross: What does it consist of?
McCALL: The bridge is half a mile across with a number of cantilevered sections made up of a lattice of vertical and diagonal struts. The piece called for each strut to be lined with a single continuous string of white LED lighting, such that the entire skeletal structure of the bridge was potentially represented at night by lines of light. Every single point of light that formed those lines would be connected and under the control of a single computer.
The cycle would begin on June 21, the shortest night of the year, with a completely dark bridge. The bridge would then be very slowly illuminated, inch-by-inch, beginning on the left bank and moving progressively toward the right bank. It would take six months to fully light the bridge, which would be completed by December 21, the longest night of the year.
The second half of the cycle, which would begin the following day, is the "un-lighting" of the same bridge. This time we would be starting with a fully illuminated bridge. Again beginning from the left bank and moving in the same direction as before, at the same slow pace, we would progressively extinguish the lights until, six months later, the bridge once again was dark. This would bring us back around to June 21. On the following day, the cycle would begin again.
Ross: So the cycle takes one full year?
McCALL: Yes, from June 21 until June 21 the following year. It then simply starts again, repeating year after year. The whole bridge becomes a kind of calendar. Any year you chose, on a certain date, the bridge would always be in the matching stage of partial illumination.
Ross: When will the piece be realized?
McCALL: At this moment, there are no definite plans. The Minetta Brook Foundation closed its doors after its founder Diane Shamash died, and without a committed producer it is difficult to imagine how the money could be raised to build the work. On the other hand, there has been a lot of continuing interest in the project, both here and abroad, and I am optimistic about its eventual realization.
Ross: It’s fascinating that these three new projects have in common the repurposing of old industrial structures that are no longer in active use: a ships dock, a silo, and a railroad bridge.
McCALL: No longer in active use but nonetheless embedded in the social fabric of the region. The original structure, whether a bridge, a silo or a dock, becomes in effect, the armature for the work of art, and the transformed site then takes on a new identity. But my guess is that the memory of the structure’s original use will be absorbed and carried forward. The silo will still look like a silo, and the bridge will still be – a bridge.
Ross: These public pieces are not only larger in scale than most of your previous work, but also more epic in a temporal sense. Many of your works, such as the solid-light pieces, feature cycles that are in the fifteen-to-thirty-minute range. But these works have cycles that take a full day to an entire year to complete. It’s a whole different sense of duration.
McCALL: Perhaps it seems as if there has been a shift in durational scale, but actually I started exploring long-cycle structures back in the early and mid-seventies. At the time it was connected to a desire on my part to thwart the formation of an assembled audience; pieces with an extended duration allow for individual observers to come and go, and to make their own decisions about how long to stay. For instance, there was the dawn-to-dusk structure of Fire Cycles III in 1974; and there was Long Film for Ambient Light at the Idea Warehouse on Reade Street in 1975, which was based on the contrast between the steady state quality of electric light and the fluctuations of natural light in its cycles of day and night. The physical installation lasted 24 hours but conceptually it was endless. It was this piece, together with Room with Altered Window and Found Solid-Light Installation that pre-figure the Auckland “Light House”.
Ross: Tell me about those other two early works.
McCALL: Found Solid-Light Installation mapped the locations of lighthouses around the English coast. A readymade, the original map was prepared by Trinity House, the public authority that managed the network of English lighthouses. It showed the position of every single lighthouse around the coastline, and the direction in which the beams were pointing.
Room with Altered Window was the first solid-light piece, made in 1973, a few months before Line Describing a Cone. I masked off my studio window using black paper with a vertical slit cut into it. The room was left dark, and light could only enter through the one vertical slit. Facing south, the blade of sunlight was projected through the aperture into my studio, and it traveled slowly around the room as the sun moved across the sky.
Ross: Most of your works use the architecture of a darkened room in which to present light pieces, an approach that grew as much out of the conventions of museum and gallery installation as the cinema house. What is it like taking your light pieces outdoors in the open air? Is this also something of a return to your earliest performance works?
McCALL: My indoor, solid-light works require a very dark space, both to frame the projected planes of light but also to contain the haze that makes them visible. This black-box context is only possible in a highly protected, carefully regulated space like an art museum or gallery. When I began to think about the bridge piece some four years back, it quickly became clear to me that there could be no question of making a projected, solid-light work of any sort for that site. It could never be dark enough and even if it was there could be no way to contain the haze. That is when I first began to think about other ways to work with light within a durational structure. Programmable LED lights suggested one way forward. And it also seemed absolutely necessary to explore approaches that accepted daylight as well as darkness, as I had with the Fire performances. Projected Column, for instance, is a projection, but because the primary shaping medium is mist rather than light, it is visible in broad daylight, as well as at night.