Material Longevities: Tris Vonna-Michell

10 May - 28 Jul 2018

When I started planning for the exhibition Material Longevities I envisaged a space in which various installations would co-exist in the gallery. My aim was that the constellation of works would share the over-lapping projection planes acoustically, spatially and temporally. The starting point for Material Longevities as an exhibition (I have recently used the title for other purposes) was to bring together works which all draw upon my relationship to technology, narration and longevity. Hence, the space is occupied by a central display structure which contains and disbands several works, in particular the two film installations Smoke & Mirrors (2018) and Chopin (2018).


Surrounding the two film installations in the front space is the aquatic installation Vessel: Yorktown Express, which consists of text/image composite prints and an assortment of slide projection lenses. This work accompanies the film installation Smoke & Mirrors, which incidentally is a metaphor originating from 18 and 19th-century phantasmagoria shows for a deceptive, fraudulent or insubstantial explanation or description. The narration in the film work Smoke & Mirrors revolves around projections, optics, fidelity and an attempt at slide technology preservation. In nearly all my works there is a fragile longevity implicit: live performance, site-sensitive constellations, photo-chemical projections and aquatic installations. During an install period in Los Angeles in 2010 I happened upon a supposedly great opportunity to purchase a large quantity of slide-related artefacts and exhibition tools. At the time I believed it was an act of preservation and good investment, but it would turn out to be neither. The text/image composite prints chronicle the transaction in a mixture of business bartering, customs jargon and image documentation of the unloading of a 20-foot cargo container. Almost all of the three hundred or so lenses were foggy or overcome by fungus which despite many attempts to integrate them into a new slide installation would project the images as a succession of opaque smudges. Apparently, the warehouse where the lenses were stored caught alight during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, and due to the intense heat and then subsequent water damage they became murky petri dishes. A handful of lenses eventually became armatures for the aquatic display in Vessel: Yorktown Express.


Installed on the core display is a new iteration of the print montage Perforations (Wasteful Illuminations). It has its origins in a journey I made to Japan as a teenager, in which no recorded images or sounds emerged due to a faulty camera and incompatible recording device. Years later I returned to Japan to re-photograph the locations I remembered encountering and made field recordings in the environments where the photographs were taken. Most of the images and recordings remained somewhat lost or misplaced in boxes and hard drives until producing Perforations I (Wasteful Illuminations) in 2015. The montage was conceived as a visual score for the film work Register (2016), which subsequently became the catalyst for the film work Smoke & Mirrors in 2017.


The film work Smoke & Mirrors starts with a reflection on notions of affectation and obsolete uses of technology, namely for special effects, amusement parks and dioramas. My first camera experience was when I photographed submerged relics from the amusement park Never Never Land in Southend-on-Sea (which sunk into the estuary shortly after my visit). Following this passage is footage of me performing in a makeshift recording studio. Filmed in a basement sauna I wanted to capture a sense of constantly shifting vessels, enclosures and motion. I performed two takes for the camera. Each take had to be under 10 minutes since we only loaded 400 feet of 16mm film. I performed the prepared narratives within the allocated time, similar to how I used to perform from 2005-2014, with an egg-timer to a live audience. I instructed the cameraman to focus on my hands mostly. The performance comprises of several interwoven narrations on my relationship to recording and projecting devices and specific environments: enclosures, dioramas, aquaria and the spaces in which they are staged, such as the amusement parks and transitory non-places.


The film and slide installation Chopin (2018), which is presented within the core display structure in the front space, is the latest reconfiguration of my research on French concrete and sound poet Henri Chopin (1922–2008). Between the 1950s and 1970s Chopin created a large body of pioneering recordings of the manipulated human voice using tape recorders and studio technologies. The projected film and slide installation is a form of expanded documentation. It brings together several documentation artefacts from my ongoing performances and installations titled Finding Chopin, which have been in progress since 2005. The impetus behind combining such forms of documentation into this newly conceived film and slide installation came from a necessity, a need to capture and timeline the disbanding threads of Finding Chopin.


The back space is occupied by the table installation Punctuation (3:54) and the film work Punctuations & Perforations. Punctuation (3:54) is a table installation consisting of a large print. It is a montage image: a portrait of my studio with all the archiving apparatus and tools for measuring and constructing my works collated into a staged moment, a still life. The title refers to the clock, the ever-presence and urgency of time in my practice as well as the precise time depicted in the capturing of the image (3:54). But also punctuation, in terms of a moment of transition and pause in my process of production and archivisation. A dozen or so photographs were created by navigating clockwise over a single wall in my studio using a hand-crafted large format camera (modified with a digital censor). The final image was composed by a patchwork process and stitched together in post-production.


The film work Punctuations & Perforations is shot on 16mm but projected digitally, it is a fictive-documentary film observing the process of slide duplication in a photo lab. The film paraphrases the necessary steps for duplication and processing of slides. Over the last decade there has been a shift concerning certain productions from industrial scale to something akin to hobby-level and amateur scale (in a small shed for example). The protagonist in the film is impersonating someone who is doing highly skilled work, which has now become much less sought after. Slide duplication has always been the most intangible element within my exhibition making process. The act of duplicating, emulating, replicating is a perquisite of the digital. Yet to do so analogically has now become not only a scarcity, but an anachronistic act. The film work Punctuations & Perforations encapsulates the revolving processes and liminal labours and armatures of such an endeavour. The film installation is devised as an endnote to the exhibition, or perhaps more specifically, an endnote to this constellation of fragile yet enduring material longevities.


Tris Vonna-Michell
Material Longevities
May, 2018