Interview with Anthony McCall


Martin Grennberger: Line Describing a Cone had its world premiere at Fylkingen in Stockholm, on August 30th, 1973. It’s a 16mm film in which a beam of light emitted from a film projector traverses the room in which the projection takes place. Could you briefly recapture what led up to this presentation? What thoughts were on your mind leading up to the completion of this solid light work?  


Anthony McCall: I made Line Describing a Cone in August 1973 and my piece Room With Altered Window (1973) was my test to see if the idea of solid light would work. It came after I had done the fire cycle performance Landscape for Fire II (1972 ), and I made my first film, shooting and editing, and I completed the film, which by the time it was finished no longer was a document of the initial performance, it was more than that, it felt like a complete film. And I showed it around mostly in friends’ studios, in London. The paradox of this is that I had made the film to preserve the performance, but for me the film was just a method to record the performance. But actually the film was more than a mere documentation of a performance.


MG: Did that come as a surprise, that it actually was a film then?


AM: You know, it came on gradually. I got more and more absorbed in the process of making a film, which was new to me. But it occurred to me that the odd thing about showing this film was that it wasn’t the real object to me, the real object had been the performance. The question in my mind became: would it be possible to make a film that was a performance? And I suppose that that train of thought was influenced by becoming interested in avant-garde cinema. Initially, strangely, through a book which was called Experimental Cinema (1971) by David Curtis, which described memorably to me Michael Snow’s film Wavelength (1967). He also talked about Warhol’s films, and I became intrigued by the possibility of other ways to use film, other than traditional ways.


MG: These two filmmakers, Snow and Warhol, were occupied with issues of duration.


AM: Yes, and in the case of Snow, what attracted me about the description of Wavelength, and I say the description of Wavelength, because when I actually eventually saw it years later, it was nothing like the description. In any case, the idea of the possibilities of something that was generated by a single idea, as Wavelength would be described as a continuous zoom through a loft space, for instance. That seemed to me very suggestive. And Warhol was interesting to me because of the idea at the time of the film being more or less the same as the time of the profilmic event. That seemed really intriguing. And then of course in London there was the London Film-Makers’ Co-op that had become quite active, and at that time influenced by Peter Gidal and Malcolm Le Grice. And Gidal’s ideas about avant-garde cinema being a kind of oppositional cinema, I first came across that idea through him. All of these ideas were floating around in the background.


MG: I assume the ideas of structural film, or Structural/materialist film fascinated you, but you went somehow in another direction here?


AM: My answer to the question was to make Line Describing a Cone.


MG: Also, during these years conceptual art and discussions about the dematerialization of the art object were intensely debated.


AM: I was just starting out. But conceptual art was my center of gravity, I think. And you could see my work with film as being an extension of my practice as a conceptual artist. All of my ideas went into my notebooks, and my notebooks still exist. So there are two archives so to speak. There are a lot of preparatory drawings. That was a practical question of making. But don’t forget, I studied photography at art school. So I was perfectly comfortable with image-making and by that time I had made three carousel projector pieces. I was taking photographs all the time–I owned a Pentax, single-lens reflex camera. And I printed in black and white.


MG: What kind of photographic work did you do at the time?


AM: I made sculptural works but I was doing them through the lens of the camera. Which is to say, they were conceived of as photographs, but they were sculptural events. For example, there is a piece called Road Work, which is shot from the balcony of my second storey building in the street and it was altering the street by putting dashed lines in eccentric ways on the street. And I photographed all of those and that became the photographed series of six that become the work. And there was Water Table, which I made in my studio, with a fixed camera on a long table, and there were  many pieces of wood that I found on the street laid across on the table, and I would remove pieces of wood and replace it with trickles of water. I ended up making a piece very much about reflection. I was making sort of quasi-conceptual pieces that were sculptural events becoming a photographic series. And I think I did 5 or 6 fire pieces during that time period.


MG: When did it occur to you that fire would be a material interesting to work with? How did that come about?


AM: (Laughs) I really don’t know. I can speculate. Most of the artists I was interested in were in New York. Also, Yves Klein in France interested me as a young artist. I thought his daring and gall was admirable. And I recalled that he did fire pieces which were reproduced in a catalog of an exhibition done at the Jewish Museum in New York, and I think I had seen those photographs. I still have the catalog. And it does have some of his fire fountains in it. Maybe the idea was suggested by those, I have no idea. I don’t remember ever referring to them, but in retrospect, looking back, maybe.


MG: Working with fire, was the idea of presenting these performances in the form of notational structures, these grids, patterns, was that there from the very early outset?


AM: Not quite. The first piece I did only had about 3 or 4 fires in it; it took place in a horse paddock at the wedding of a close friend of mine. And we did a lot of performances that night as part of celebrations. That was Landscape for Fire I. Landscape for Fire II was when it was fully formed with a score, six by six grid, and that had been part of an invitation from ICES, the International Carnival of Experimental Sound, which took place in London in 1972. They invited [me] to do a performance as part of the performances of that event. It was the same event that John Cage and David Tudor came to London to perform HPSCHD (1967-69) for 7 harpsichords and computer-generated sounds. The business of scoring kind of just came easy into my hands. It was my way of planning a work. I would usually try out a plan on paper before I executed it. That was the only thing I had for Landscape for Fire II, it wasn’t rehearsed in any way. It was not improvised, it was scored, I made a score for it, but it was a very rough score, and it didn’t include everything. We made up some of it as we went along, to some extent, within the framework of already having a conceptual score.


MG: Moving on to Line Describing a Cone and its presentation in Stockholm, I wanted to ask you about those early presentations and your ideas about the projection as event, as performance if you will. What ideas did you have about the sonic aspects, the projector being present in the projection space, etc?


AM: The sound of the projection was always important to me. The sound held you in. The problem with the early presentations of Line Describing a Cone, when haze machines were used, was that they were not friendly to the projector. They didn’t like one another very much, and the haze could coat the film in such a way that it could damage the projector or even shut it down. So I had to place the projector in a booth, but unfortunately that meant you couldn’t hear it, and then you perhaps transfer your ears to the haze machine, but that was an accident really. But the natural sound of things I’ve always included as part of the idea of the work, I never considered that to be outside of the work.


MG: Is there an ideal amount of audience when the film is projected? Could there be too many people? Are there issues with a too-crowded room?


AM: The performance yesterday [at S8] was very crowded (laughs). With hundreds of people, it became very social. Like hanging out, like a party almost. It’s one way of doing it, but I personally prefer a quieter presentation. Ideally for me you probably would have between 10 to 20 people. That is a nice number to maintain a certain quality, a sense of each other, the sense of maneuvering the space in relation to other people, and creating a form of performative aspect where the execution of the work became a kind of performance, as well as become a kind of sculpture, as well as being a piece of cinema.


Line Describing a Cone is 50 years old this year. You can have too many people in a way to see the work properly. I am not saying that happened last night. I just prefer smaller audiences. There are practical issues. If you have 150 people, you still only have one cone of light, which is developing gradually. It’s a delicate piece and it’s pretty easy for some of the audience to get in the way of the beam of light, so that there is very little left to see. But it is remarkable how audiences are sensitive to that though, and somehow leave space for each other and for the developing plane of light, and it seems to be instinctive.


MG: The first presentation at Fylkingen in August 1973 was part of a performance festival. Your then-partner Carolee Schneemann showed some of her films and the kinetic theater piece Subtle gardening or cooking with apes, along with pieces by Swedish artists like Åke Karlung, among others. One of the organizers of the event was experimental poet and composer Sten Hanson, and he performed in Schneemann’s piece. Beyond Light Describing a Cone, you also showed Landscape for White Squares (1972), Earth Work (1972). What could you say about these works?



AM: Earth Work is a short work, a 2-min performance film, and I say film because I shot it on 16mm. It’s highly edited, at a time when artists  were working with video, and there was no way of cutting that video, no editing process, so you just ran the camera. A lot of the artist’s work was a camera watching some kind of action. And this was definitely a film, shot in pieces and then edited. The film depicts digging a hole in the ground and then replacing the earth in a wrapped-up box, and then covering it over again at the end. I like it.  


When I arrived in Stockholm I had never seen Line Describing a Cone. I collected it from the film lab in New York, picked up the print on my way to the airport, the same day. When we got to Sweden, when we drove to the city, I mentioned to one of the organizers, casually, that I got this new film in my suitcase and she said that we should show it then. And I said, we can’t show it, I haven’t seen it myself yet; she said, just show it (laughs). We did, and it was the first time I’ve seen it. At Fylkingen, it was probably only 20 people in the audience, I don’t quite remember it being crowded.


MG: Did you do a test beforehand at Fylkingen?


AM: No! We didn’t do tests. We just set the projector up, loaded the film, made the room dark, and turned it on. And then I was astonished.


MG: Were you nervous what you were about to see?


AM: No, it was very casual, a very informal, friendly environment. It was fine, everyone was receptive, there weren’t big things riding on it.


MG: Do you remember the actual installment, the room, the space of the place, the distance to the screen and so on?      


AM: I think it was something probably like six meters from the screen to the projector, it wasn’t particularly big. The projector was on a stand. The one thing I don’t remember was about the visibility aspect. The thing is, in those days people smoked all the time, I suspect that there were a couple of smokers in that room and that enabled us to get a glimpse of what sort of form was coming into being. But I was thrilled by what I saw. I knew it would work because I had done that experiment with Room With Altered Window, and that was based on a little dust and cigarette smoke. I was not surprised about what was on the film because I put it there, but I was astonished by its impact, and rather thrilled by it. It was a shock to see it in the flesh when it had previously been just an idea.


MG: Do you remember whether it was projected on a projection surface, a more conventional screen or directly on the wall?


AM: I suspect it was projected straight on the wall, which I continue to like. My sense of the screen is that it was simply the wall where the beam stopped. I am not a purist when it comes to projection surface, but I would prefer for the screen wall to be of some homogeneous material. And it could be black, it could be white, but it could not be wallpaper, it had to be a simple screen. I don’t think Fylkingen had a formal screen, they probably just used the wall. Which was common enough with avant-garde film; Carolee’s work was often shown on walls rather than on screens.


MG: Do you remember any of the reactions of the audience?


AM: Mostly young people were there. The light materialized itself more than I or the audience had imagined. It was a big surprise for everybody.


MG: Could you say something about Landscape for White Squares?


AM: I did a series of these very short performance films. Landscape for White Squares was shot in the middle of January, in the country, in a plowed field that was frozen. It was very hard to move across it. The film is a performance in which each performer was holding a large white sheet, which at a distance got lost in the mist. In the morning there was thick fog. We just filmed some single moments of these six performances wheeling around in a straight line. But this, and Earth Work, were no longer than 2 minutes. The cinematographer on these films was someone that I had met recently. He was a professional cinematographer. He was using an Eclair or an Arriflex I think, a 16mm camera.


MG: Landscape for Fire II took place on a field adjacent to Filmhuset, at Gärdet, on the outskirts of central Stockholm. How did you find this location?


AM: I am sure they knew by mail that I needed a field. And soon after we got there, I am sure, Sten Hanson took us in the car to the Gärdet, and we surveyed it and I must have given it the ok. It was a good location, because it’s a bit of a hill down there. And he said fine, and my understanding then was that he got a permit to do it. And then we had to fuss over the logistics. For example, we needed gasoline as a fuel. We used some film cans, and into those we poured gasoline. And they became the points of the grid. And I knew if those were full of gasoline then it would burn for two minutes. So I had some control over duration.


MG: Do you have a clear sense of scale, from your notebooks and preparatory notes, instructions, diagrams, and drawings, of the scale of the piece, or is that actually always constituted by the actual geographic location?


AM: It’s influenced by the location, and I was very sensitive to scale. And I made a good size grid there, a bigger grid than Landscape for Fire I for example. I noticed in the archive that I have some pictures of the preparatory drawings. I had 2 people from Fylkingen helping me with the performance. And there were probably a dozen people, probably a few more than that. Maybe 15 say, I don’t know. There was plenty of room for the performers to move between the fires, to the next part to light. The grid absorbed the audience; some watched it from the hill, some stayed inside the grid. And I think I probably had foghorns, I can’t remember exactly, but I probably did. They were basically aerosol cans with compressed air in them, I brought them with me.


When I went to Stockholm for my show at Moderna Museet (2009), Sten was in the audience, and we talked afterward. And I said to him that I had never shaken the idea that the authorities were unjust to close down the performance. The fire brigade came, and they closed down the performance after 20 minutes of Landscape for Fire. So we couldn’t do it anymore. So unjust, considering that you had a permit, that they shut it down. And he said, actually, there was no permit. He hadn’t applied for one. Which you have to admire him for (laughs). So anyway, that’s just an anecdote, but a good one I think.


Interview conducted during The (S8) International Peripheral Film Festival (Mostra Internacional de Cinema Periférico), A Coruña, Spain, July 2023.


Thanks to Ed Halter and The (S8) International Peripheral Film Festival.