Several times a week, I sneak downstairs to watch dancers rehearse with Merce Cunningham. I work at a nonprofit located in the New Museum and its current Tacita Dean exhibition includes Craneway Event, a 108-minute film of the choreographer at work in an enormous former assembly plant outside San Francisco. A postcard vista of the bay glistens in the background. As the sun creeps in, it warms the reflective surface of the floor to a bluish-gray so that in some shots water seems to ripple beneath the dancers’ feet.
Architect Albert Kahn originally designed the plant for maximum natural light. Stripped of furnishing and ornament, it looks porous rather than cavernous. There feels something almost prescriptively calming about looking at a space that size while living in a city as densely populated as New York; as if just by looking at it, I reclaim my proper wingspan after weeks in shoebox-sized studio apartments and subway cars sitting elbow-to-elbow with other passengers. My sense of time is similarly unreined. Nothing rushed, no antics, and absent of narrative; the film offers rather than requests my patience.
The term “time-based art” seems especially apt when discussing Tacita Dean’s work. In interviews, she talks of her delight in the period between shooting footage and processing it, as it allows her to revisit a film in progress with a new perspective. Her subjects might be defined broadly as the history slipping through our fingers: fleeting moments, obsolescing technology, the wisdom of an old master (Cunningham died a year after Craneway Event was made,) things just about to disappear.
As her very craft faces extinction, it fittingly became one of her subjects. Last year, Soho Film Laboratory, where she was a longtime customer, abruptly ended new orders of 16mm film prints due to new management. She was at the time preparing an installation for the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, as The New Yorker explained in a profile of Dean last autumn.
Britain’s thriving community of 16mm filmmakers now must look overseas for professional printing services. And how long those labs will operate is another question. Writing for the Guardian in February last year, Dean explained how switching to digital would be like switching to a different medium:
I shoot on negative that is then taken to the lab, in much the same way you used to drop your photos off to be developed. The 16mm print I get back is called the rush print. The negative stays in the lab. Working alone on a cutting table over many weeks, I cut my film out of the rush print. Using tape, I stick the shots together, working as both artist and artisan. It is the heart of my process, and the way I form the film is intrinsically bound up with these solitary hours of watching, spooling and splicing.
When I have finished, I take my reel of taped film, now called my cutting copy, to a negative cutter, who cuts the original negative and delivers it to the lab, which then prints it as a film. My relationship to film begins at that moment of shooting, and ends in the moment of projection. Along the way, there are several stages of magical transformation that imbue the work with varying layers of intensity. This is why the film image is different from the digital image: it is not only emulsion versus pixels, or light versus electronics but something deeper—something to do with poetry.
It made me think what I would do in a world without paper and pencils, only laptops to write on. But while processing costs can be low, filmmaking, in any form, has never been cheap. Understanding the costs involved in preserving these labs, Dean called for a public specialist laboratory that could provide 16mm and 35mm film processing, “possibly affiliated to the BFI.” This would have to happen quickly as equipment, not to mention the skills of professionals, may soon be lost.
The Turbine Hall commission became FILM, an 11-minute long urgent plea for celluloid in an increasingly dematerializing world. “Today its years are numbered, but I will remain loyal to this analogue art form until the last lab closes,” wrote Steven Spielberg in the exhibition catalog, which reads like a series of manifestos on that point. Contributors also include Martin Scorsese, Jean-Luc Godard, and countless other writers, artists, curators, and musicians. Even Keanu Reeves wrote an essay explaining how a photochemical film set “feels like something is at stake … it feels important and intense—uniquely … in a way death is present in the rolling of that film.”
FILM, was itself a loving tribute to the medium. Rather than a frustrated attempt to stop time and rewind back to technologies of the past, Dean argued for the co-existence of digital and analog, emphasizing the difference. The silent film on a loop is a series of images from around the Tate. Its elevators, escalator steps, windows and other ordinary surfaces are manipulated with bright colors and cut-out shapes projected vertically on a giant perforated filmstrip 42 feet high. To see the dust and grain of the film, watch shadows puncture the image as people pass, to listen to a projector purr; is to appreciate the very physical nature of film.
Situated in the five storeys tall Turbine Hall, it provided a comforting familiarity, reminiscent of the dark expanses of a movie theater as experienced from a child’s eye view. Museum visitors, especially children, walked up to the screen as close as they could to stare up. After watching the piece run multiple times, I could feel myself adjusting to its circadian rhythm and soon could approximate the time from a familiar frame.
Nostalgia is not quite the right word to describe how Tacita Dean relates to celluloid film. She is firmly rooted in the present while considering what might pass. There’s no vaseline on the lens or sepia tone here. Her nostalgia is not for film itself, but film’s way to relate the experience time. A film projector measures out minutes and seconds relating to the speed that the footage was shot.
“Film is time made manifest: time as physical length – 24 frames per second, 16 frames in a 35mm foot,” she wrote in the accompanying wall text. “It is still images beguiled into movement by movement and is eternally magical. The time in my films is the time of film itself.”