Show and Tell with Lary 7
Lary 7 is a New York City-based multimedia artist who has been making art in a variety of media for the better part of 40 years and counting: photography, film, performance, installations, music, sound recordings, and more. This January, prompted by the premiere of Danielle De Picciotto’s documentary Not Junk Yet: The Art of Lary 7, Anthology Film Archives screened some of his best work, presenting a series of films that give us a sense of Lary’s unique view on the world, one that is both personal and expansive, ephemeral and yet concrete. Lary himself physically recreates each live film projection, making each performance a unique and unrepeatable experience.
Spanning a period from the mid-’70s to the present, Lary’s body of work shows an incredible ability to manipulate and interact with the medium of film in highly unorthodox ways. Form and process are equally important to Lary, as are the concepts underlying his work. He is quite specific about how he prepares, executes, and performs each film, always allowing for the elements of chance and absurdity. His interest in inducing, through the medium of film, altered or heightened mental states is clearly defined as one part of an artistic vision which strives to be both technically challenging as well as aesthetically concise. In the film Cinemachinery for example, a loop of a bare projector bulb is shot on high-contrast 35mm film, then re-shot again and looped into a sort of stuttering assault: Here, we have the basic elements that are the foundation for all of these films and is one of Lary’s most stark and direct reflections on process and form. At Anthology, Lary presented most of his films by incorporating extended techniques: live projector manipulation; direct, on-film handling or distressing; film threaded through multiple projectors; and other unconventional techniques. Each presentation is a masterpiece, and each one deserves to be seen by as large and wide an audience as possible.
The opener was a dual projection of Times Square Times Two, a double 35mm projection of smeared nighttime city lights interspersed with the occasional glimpse of a street scene. During projection, the film was sent into a first projector and, as it unspooled, was then put through a second projector. This technique was used again later in the show, and though it’s a dangerous way of doing things—the film can easily get snagged and broken—it seems to be a favorite approach for Lary as it creates tension and leaves open the possibilities of chance, an important force in his creative process. As they move from frame to frame, the images begin to flutter and flicker, the projectors cranking slowly at odd frame rates not normally associated with 35mm, all to the droning cry of three live, mechanical sirens.
All of this makes for a tripped-out experience, and it demonstrates a concept that Lary 7 returns to in his work and actively researches and develops across various media: film projection’s capacity to induce a trance state in the spectator. Like Times Square Times Two, Girl in the Snow is also fed to one projector and as it slowly unspools is guided into a second. Hand-processed and originally shot in 1979 on 8mm print stock, Girl in the Snow was later reshot on black-and-white high-speed camera film which greatly increased the grain and contrast. Still later in a third generation it was blown up to 35mm. The film consists of a single shot—that of a young woman walking in the snow—which has been deliberately distressed, slowed down, and looped into a frozen, hallucinatory fragment. The multiple generations cause the grain in the film to grow to an absurd size, giving the overall image quality a distant, monochromatic, almost alien look. Here the film was accompanied by a pre-recorded soundtrack, this time created by the whistling drones of four tea kettles, the audio layered on itself several times over in the recording.
In drawing upon these many manual and mechanical techniques for manipulating celluloid, Lary places himself in a long tradition of North American experimental cinema. In The Owl Movie, Lary pays homage to the many mentors and teachers who inspired and taught him: artists such as Tony Conrad, Hollis Frampton, Ernie Gehr, and Paul Sharits—all professors he studied with at the University of Buffalo. Named for a stuffed owl that occupies the center of the visual field, the film was first shown several years ago at Experimental Intermedia Performance Space with a live sound accompaniment by sound-artist Gen-Ken Montgomery. In The Owl Movie, another double projection, here utilizing several different 16mm film stocks, both owl and camera are stationary, but the lighting of the shot steadily changes. The projectors are continuously manipulated by Lary in real time, and the image is aligned and layered over itself to create a throbbing, flickering, quasi-three-dimensional effect. Once various gels and flickering are introduced, the multicolored owl images take on a startling, immersive, psychedelic quality that slowly takes hold of the viewer’s mind and doesn’t let go. The layers and strobing, caused by direct manipulation of projector gates and speeds, create the kind of oscillation effect more readily found in the acoustic sound world, and have similar characteristics to audible beat frequencies. (In acoustics, a “beat” is an interference between two sounds of slightly different frequencies; visually, this is approximated by misaligning two images slightly as they proceed, along with other visual manipulations, causing a sort of “vibration.”) As effects are thrown at the screen one after another in rapid, escalating succession, it doesn’t take long before viewers can find themselves locked into a trance or hypnotic state. It seems to work every time, and every time is different: a unique experience for viewers as the pace, speed, strobing, and layering all occur quasi-randomly, so that viewer and creator alike never quite know when or how or in what order the images will strike the eye and the brain.
Everything we see in the show, and in fact all film presentation, is made up of a process that’s both mechanical and magical, producing wildly improbable and fantastic images. In The Curtain of Failure (For the Death of Kodachrome) we see several of Lary’s regular 8mm cameras slowly spinning in mid-air against the background of a simple red curtain, one camera dissolving into the next. Foregrounding the material of film itself, The Curtain of Failure is another exploration of the origins of the medium, its title alluding to an artistic process in which the finished product never quite meets its creator’s vision, and represents an homage to the very equipment and materials that have inspired him. On the soundtrack, a needle reaches the end of a record, skipping back and forth between the grooves, creating yet another layer both hypnotic and absurd. After a short while, the image cuts to a stuffed, dead squirrel, then to a dead cockroach. What does it tell us? Perhaps it’s that everything we’ve seen in the film so far seems to be from another era, and is either dying or being actively killed off. The Curtain of Failure is a clockwork progression on a downward path: we begin with the ideal of the beauty of images delivered by Kodachrome film stock—in fact, one of the last 16mm Kodachrome rolls sent off for processing when that stock itself was discontinued then jump to the stark, grotesque black-and-white images of dead animals. As with almost all of Lary’s work, there is a Dada-esque absurdity to this film, but a more subtle message lies below the surface, perhaps—of time and its slow but unrelenting progress, the sense of a force we can’t fight, and so must enjoy while we can, take advantage of now and appreciate for its transient beauty.
Lary 7 refuses to conform to the conventions of film creation and presentation. He rarely edits after shooting, but usually edits in-camera and leaves most flaws in the final film. He shoots in any and all formats available, sometimes recombining formats for a final project. His cameras often have flaws or mechanical imperfections which cause the film to fail or behave in ways that most would consider unusable or “wrong,” any one of which flaws he instead highlights and exploits for its particular effect. He won’t always use a lab to process his film and often does it himself, stringing the wet film up to dry throughout his apartment.
The idea that Lary 7’s films can simply be put on a projector and allowed to run by themselves is contrary to his basic artistic philosophy. In this, he takes some inspiration from one of his heroes, Jack Smith who might “re-edit” his films at the moment of their presentation. Similarly, Lary’s film art is really only complete with him present and working the projectors, modifying their behavior, manipulating speeds, physically interspersing colored gels, creating stroboscopic effects, and doing absolutely anything else he may feel is appropriate in the moment.
Seen individually, these films are unique visual experiments that elaborate on a particular thread of inspiration or creative endeavor. Each film shows reality as endlessly malleable and always subject to the whims of personal interpretation. Taken as a whole, the films of Lary 7 are certainly more than the sum of their parts: Last January’s show can be seen, among other things, as a meditation on the world we live in and on how swiftly and radically it changes. A sense of loss and nostalgia permeates these films, but with a peculiar combination of ambivalence and determination. Or perhaps it’s stubbornness. But only when these films are seen in the aggregate do we begin to realize just how persistently they generate and explore trance states through the medium of film projection, and pure visual and sonic immersion—brainwave activity altered via stroboscopic effects and simple repetition. In fact, Lary himself has discussed how the very word “hypnotic” is a source of inspiration for his work. Between the magic and the mechanics of Lary’s film apparatus, there is a real and conscious effort to cast a spell over the viewer—to induce calm and relaxation, so that when it’s over, it’s as if you’re waking from a dream.
FABIO ROBERTI is the owner of Earwax Records in Brooklyn, and is a DJ at WFMU radio where he has been for the past 29 years. He has made films, videos, photographs, and curated film shows at various times since the 1980s.