The art of projection with Bruce McClure

The art of projection with Bruce McClure
Bruce McClure. | Photo by Robin Martin

With the projector performances of Bruce McClure, the artist is always undeniably present. Using multiple projectors, film loops, strobe lights, effects pedals, and a flurry of ideas, McClure distills his resources into intense, abstract, flickering presentations that distort time and space.

How long does it last? Twenty minutes? Forty-five minutes? Quit looking at your watch — you won't be experiencing anything like this again any time soon. Just stare. See and hear what happens on the screen, in the theater, inside your eyes and ears. This is work that can't be captured through recorded means — you've got to be present too. A video can't contain the intensities or the subtleties of a McClure projector performance. Compare memories and impressions with other viewers. And afterward, maybe ask questions of the artist yourself — he'll be in the room, presenting his paracinematic art in real time and in real space.

"The typical filmmaker would say it's about more light and less light, but I say fuck the film and give the room some credit. And start with darkness. The film is just an interval of light in a dark room, if you have the lights turned out," says the Brooklyn, New York-based McClure, revealing the stripped down mechanical basis of any film projection.

His aren't just any film projections, though. Since the mid-'90s, McClure has challenged definitions with his "projector performances," for lack of a better term. "I use that term as a matter of convenience," he says.

"It's just these combinations of words that we are compelled to use, none of which are satisfactory. 'Performance' has a lot of baggage associated with it, with popular culture. I have less problems with 'projection,' because I like projective geometry, where lines that are understood to be parallel and defined as never touching meet at a point. Which is counter to everything we've been taught in geometry. In projective geometry, all of the definitions get switched all of a sudden."

Flicker films have a deep history in avant-garde cinema, from seminal works like Peter Kubelka's Arnulf Rainer in the '50s and Tony Conrad's notorious The Flicker in the '60s, to the multiple projections of Paul Sharits, Bruce Conner's Report, and more recently Joshua Gen Solondz's Prisoner's Cinema. McClure goes steps beyond, not only creating film loops based on precise ratios of light to dark frames, but "bi-packing" different sized loops so that two are traveling through the projector at the same time, and modifying the projectors themselves.

To that end, McClure inserts plates to alter the projected light in a significant way, as well as adds controllable dimmers to the projector bulbs. These alterations allow him to manipulate the projectors according to his scores and instructions. McClure explains the genesis of his signature tools: "I was insulted by the way the projector was treated by film. Everything was all about the film, 'Put the film in, let's watch Johnny jump through a hoop.' You get tired of that. The only way to make it into a participatory implement was to modify it. It was also a scheme I had to revitalize a moribund technology."

It's analogous to circuit benders who repurpose the electronics in children's toys, and also to the prepared pianos of John Cage (whom McClure assisted at workshops sporadically throughout the '80s), or the player pianos of composer Conlon Nancarrow. In McClure's hands, notions of expanded cinema become extended cinema, like the extended technique of avant-garde musicians playing instruments in unorthodox or "wrong" ways to create their art.

McClure exposes the audience to a perceptual experience akin to the way artists like Robert Irwin and James Turrell work with a viewer's subjectivity. But where those two artists are placid, McClure can be ferocious. Film loops get superimposed, creating pulsing, stroboscopic light, while the film's optical soundtracks are treated and manipulated, very loudly, by a plethora of effects pedals. It's a radical innovation in film art that has brought McClure recognition: a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Alpert award, part of the Whitney Biennial twice. It's also sensory overload that only made perfect sense as an opening act for the reformed Throbbing Gristle in 2009, though it's hard to imagine even those industrial legends coming close to the austere intensity of a McClure performance.

McClure has presented new projector performances for the past 14 years every summer in Windsor under the umbrella of the Media City Film Festival. This year he comes for the 30th anniversary of Common Ground, an art gallery in Windsor, for performances both at the gallery and the ballroom of the adjacent Mackenzie Hall — two very different rooms.

"The idea is that you are in a small box at Common Ground, and in a bigger box in the ballroom. And even doing the same piece, in those two situations, will make it different enough. I might even show the same exact piece both nights, though some people might feel ripped off. This is commerce, you know?" says McClure, talking about his art. "That's a joke," he clarifies, regarding the commerce, but not the art. Of the variations that can occur even when performing the same piece in different rooms at different times, he concludes, "You can't put your foot in the same pile of shit twice. That's my version of Heraclitus."

"Bruce McClure: There Was a Sweet Hopeful" is at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 6 and Sunday, Aug. 7 at Mackenzie Hall Ballroom and Common Ground art gallery, both located at 3277 Sandwich St. in Windsor. Pay what you like; $5 donation suggested.

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