Film Strips Shining Like Stained Glass

Jennifer West, "Flashlight Filmstrip Projections" (2014) (photo by Evan La Londe, courtesy of the artist)
Jennifer West, ‘Flashlight Filmstrip Projections’ (2014) (photo by Evan La Londe, courtesy the artist)

PORTLAND, Oregon — A cavernous room in an abandoned factory that once made window coverings is showcasing a different kind of window. Artist Jennifer West has installed a set of transparent plexiglass frames covered with strips of 35mm and 70mm film. Viewers are invited to enter this dark space and shine flashlights onto the film strips, casting colored shadows that envelop the room. As visitors tinker with their flashlights, the bright emissions change, intersect, and turn the vast walls into ever-evolving spectacles of dancing light.

Jennifer West’s Flashlight Flimstrip Projections is the largest visual art installation at the Fashion Tech warehouse, which has been adapted into a venue for visual and performance art for the 2014 Time-Based Art Festival, orchestrated by the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art. Only an industrial-sized room could so fully accommodate the large scale of the projections from the 70mm film, which is interspersed with frames containing strips of smaller 35mm film.

Jennifer West, 'Flashlight Filmstrip Projections' (2014) (photo by Wayne Bund, courtesy the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art)
Jennifer West, ‘Flashlight Filmstrip Projections’ (2014) (photo by Wayne Bund, courtesy the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art)

The work is a tribute to the dying medium of 70mm, once widely used in projection booths at cinemas to show movies. The shift to digital projectors has caused film labs to close across the country, leaving the future of shooting on celluloid uncertain. The filmstrips used in the installation come from a variety of sources: scrap piles of castoff 35mm film, hand-painted 70mm film leader, and footage shot on 35mm by West herself. (She then worked with the last 70mm optical film printer at her lab in North Hollywood to enlarge some of the 35mm work.) Each plexiglass frame bears a different intervention or manipulation by the artist, specifically designed for flashlight projection in the dark.

Jennifer West, 'Flashlight Filmstrip Projections' (2014) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Jennifer West, ‘Flashlight Filmstrip Projections’ (2014) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The installation invites each visitor to become an artist and take a pass at manipulating the light. Shapes come in and out of focus; colors shift from vivid to dull; the size varies depending upon where you place the flashlight. Each window offers endless variation, which can quickly turn it into an artistic game to create the emission that thrills you the most. And the challenge becomes collaborative as images from nearby viewers intersect with your own. At marvelous moments, I was surrounded by colorful patterns on all sides.

One piece projects the phrase “Expect even better” onto the wall. It’s an apt proverb for the addictive experience of the work; as you get the hang of shining the flashlight, you keep surprising yourself and watching your results improve. It’s also a link to the larger curatorial theme of poetry for the 2014 TBA’s visual art series. With the title “As round as an apple, As deep as cup,” PICA’s visual art curator Kristan Kennedy is pushing us: apples aren’t perfectly round, and cups aren’t necessarily deep, but they might be the roundest and deepest things we get for breakfast. Just as poetry is activated by the reader’s mind, which takes each phrase in a different, idiosyncratic direction, West’s installation allows each visitor gets to shine the flashlight in a way suited to his or her imagination. When hit with light at the right angle, one of West’s windows shines the word “maker.”

Jennifer West, 'Flashlight Filmstrip Projections' (2014) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Jennifer West, ‘Flashlight Filmstrip Projections’ (2014) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

There are a few special tricks you can discover by playing with the varying sizes of flashlights provided. The largest is so bright, you can wield it to create a circular distortion that can be moved across the projected pattern — a wonderful opportunity to manipulate an anamorphosis. Then there is a ghostly white reflection of the celluloid created by shining the flashlight at just the right backwards angle. The plasmatic, fractal form sometimes appears in the background, amid louder colored patterns, but it takes particular skill to draw it out as completely and as isolated as at left. It’s one of the rewards that the work bestows on those who take the time to engage it extensively.

On two evenings during the festival, West staged a performance piece in which a dancer twirled in a large white dress with wings that reflected the filmstrips’ colored shadows. It was an homage to Loïe Fuller’s famous “Serpentine Dance” from the 1890s, which bombarded a dancer in a billowy winged dress with light. West’s performance was a mesmerizing blend of clicking sound, a spinning body, and glowing forms.

Jennifer West: Flashlight Filmstrip Projections continues at The Works at Fashion Tech (2010 SE 8th Ave, Portland, Oregon) through September 30. The reenactments of Loïe Fuller’s “Serpentine Dance” took place September 16–17.

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