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Installation view of Trevor Tweeten’s “Running in Eight Directions” (2013–15) (all images courtesy the artist)

Trevor Tweeten is an artist and filmmaker who works across the media of film, sculpture, and installation. As the cinematographer and editor for “The Enclave,” a project by Irish artist Richard Mosse that appeared at the 55th Venice Biennale (2013) Irish Pavilion, he has demonstrated his ability to create highly charged visual and sensory experience with moving images.

A view of Murphy’s monumental kinetic inflatable that’s part of the two-person exhibition with Trevor Tweeten at the Knockdown Center (photo courtesy Michael Merck)

His new piece, “Running in Eight Directions” (2013–15), is part of a two-person exhibition with Clive Murphy, titled II Machines, currently on view at the Knockdown Center. The curator of the exhibition, Jessamyn Fiore, identified that the two artists’ works both address space by sculpting the immaterial: light, air, and sound.

While Murphy’s monumental kinetic inflatable construction created from adjoined trash bags heightens the viewer’s awareness of the building’s scale and its industrial quality, Tweeten’s piece invites us to experience time and space’s alternative dimensions.

“Running in Eight Directions” consists of a projection machine that Tweeten built by welding eight 16mm film projectors into one unit that is able to project simultaneously in eight directions in a panoramic configuration. As the single strip of film is being passed from one projector to the next, the same footage is consequently projected in succession, each with a three-second delay. The runtime of each loop is about seven minutes, which is literally the time that the strip of film takes to physically travel around the exhibition space in one full circle, on an elevated track that Tweeten designed and fabricated.

In creating the film itself, Tweeten collaborated with choreographer and dancer Lydia Chrisman, and captured her body movement with deliberate shots from up-close, highlighting the skin texture and folding as her body moved with an escalating momentum. Projected onto the interior “skin” of the industrial building, the eight projections illuminate varying contours of the space while transforming them into surfaces of time.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Trevor Tweeten at his studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn.

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Xinran Yuan: Although it is difficult to talk about the term “site-specificity” these days without concerning all the discourse around it, I do think it’s valid to approach your piece “Running in Eight Directions” by speaking about its relationship with the site. Not only does the installation occupy the space, reflect on and illuminate its infrastructure, and transform it, but the duration of the film itself is a direct result of measuring the footprint of the space. Correct?

View of “Running in Eight Directions” (2013–15)

Trevor Tweeten: When curator Jessamyn Fiore first invited Clive Murphy and I to create an exhibition at the Knockdown Center, we went for a couple of site visits. I was immediately attracted by the history of the place and its physical quality; it was full of remnants of a factory that had seen years of mechanical labor, and decided to work within the exciting challenges that the space offered, such as its elongated shape, a set of pillars running down the middle of the room, and a wall of 15 consecutive exit doors. By projecting directly onto the interior surfaces of the space without building additional screens, I was glad to find that the images took on the different shapes, textures, and sizes of their corresponding surfaces: columns, corners, floor-to-ceiling walls, or metal doors.

I have always been fascinated by the very physical elements of space in relation to film as a time-based medium. During the editing of the film and the installation process, a lot of what I was thinking about was that each frame is 7mm wide, and 40 frames is one foot, which is just under two seconds. Calculations based on the size of the space affected the duration of the piece. To me, the piece then becomes a clock, as it goes around the space in a circular motion at its inherent speed of 24 frames per second.

XY: The idea of a “clock” that encompasses us is fascinating. The installation seems to bind time and space into one indivisible entity that we are invited to become part of. In the context of an exhibition titled II Machines, can you speak more about the mechanism and structure of this time-space-machine that you built, and what kind of phenomenon it creates?  

TT: I think about the installation as an organism. The way it surrounds you: it has warmth to it; it breathes; it has the texture of the skin. If the system malfunctions, or if a light bulb goes off, the organism fails, and I have to care for it.

There are two dominant elements in the installation: the projections of the dancer’s body, and the body of the machine itself: a body with eight eyes and a spine, and multiple pairs of arms extended, passing a strip of 16mm film across the room.

To me, somehow the movement and rhythm of the dancer’s body in the projections, while acting as a nice counterpoint, also become a pointer, or a clue, to the machine itself, the way the machine’s body parts spin, twist, and rotate. As the camera makes a slow movement along the dancer’s extended arms, the machine’s arms are also being articulated. There is tension between the projected female form and the steel, masculine, mechanical form, and I like how these two elements fit together.

Ultimately, for me the most important thing is that the installation creates an experience, or a zone that it puts you in. It’s not necessarily about the mechanical process, or even so much about the images. Instead, it is about the full experience of all the elements: the droning sound, a combination of slow-moving images, the sense of suspended time, and the process of discovering how everything works and fits together. This all exists within the structure of a single looping strip of film.

A lot of the intention behind the piece was to create a process, an experience during which people gradually discover a multitude of events. There are clues, and the viewer’s experience becomes the journey. Different people experience the installation differently. Some people go directly to the projection machine, become curious about how the machine works, and afterwards become involved with the film. Others walk straight up to the surfaces that images are projected on. Throughout the experience, changes happen as your eyes adjust. You come around a corner and see an image; you turn around the corner and get blinded by the machine. It is really nice to have the process where once your eyes adjust to the dark, you “wake up,” and start to notice the strip of film that is traveling throughout the entire space.

View of “Running in Eight Directions” (2013–15)

XY: I definitely enjoyed discovering layers of information, materials, and links as I spent more time immersed in the space. Once I realized that the filmstrip was going around the room, suspended close to the ceiling, I was able to imagine the dancer’s body being fully present, and I started to walk underneath the running film, chasing after her. What I think is incredible about this piece, is that nothing is in disguise; every logic of construction is there for the viewer to discover. However, there were still endless mysteries that I walked away trying to solve, which I think has to do with time. We are faced with multiple afterlives of the past as they continue to live side by side, next to each present that is fleeting. 

TT: A lot of what I’m interested in, especially with this machine, has to do with escaping the rules of the cinema. Cinema is time-based, which means that there is no possibility of escaping sequence: something precedes something, and something follows something. I find it exciting to resist against these constraints.

Oftentimes I work with a looping format that doesn’t necessarily have a sequence-based structure. Working with an eight-projector machine like this, I am able to have the same footage played repeatedly across the space with an accumulation of delay. It essentially offers multiple versions of “the present.” We are so used to seeing a single screen and accepting it as our only present. In this piece, however, there isn’t a singular sense of what is “now.” Instead, the “now” becomes a sense of the whole. To a certain extent, this piece is an attempt to escape time, and to escape sequence. When encountering the piece, you have a hypnotic sense because you are seeing things over and over again. At the same time, there’s something uncanny about being aware of the three-second delay. It’s not necessarily unsettling, but it brings about a really different sense of time.

XY: The 16mm film has a linear shape; the strip of film moves in a linear fashion from one projector to the next. How do we reconcile the linearity of the filmstrip, which is an embodiment of time, with time’s multiple possibilities of existence, which the film seems to reveal? 

TT: The linear movement of the film ultimately completes itself into a circular movement. In a way, I think about time as a circle. We are here; it goes around. We have a sense of linearity because we only have a limited understanding of time. We are on a very short section of the curve, but the curve is much larger than that. So I guess that’s a lot of what I am interested in exploring in my work.

Some of the lines you see on the projection are scratches on the film. I like them a lot because they work as an accumulation of evidence. The more the strip of film goes around the room, the more evidence there is on how much it has traveled, gone through the tracks, and through the machine.

XY: Nowadays, the practice of moving image is often associated with technology. How do you position yourself in the new-media-centric contemporary art world? 

TT: It seems that more and more videos are being installed in a very clean and precise fashion. The apparatus itself becomes invisible, as the digital content plays from a small thumb drive. Materiality disappears, which on one hand I think is very good because it directs attention to the content itself. However, what I am interested in doing is very much about the thing itself, the way images and their making occupy space. Therefore, I think what I am creating is a kind of time-sculpture.

During the making of this installation, I asked myself this question a lot: what is the point of making a 16mm piece, in the year 2015? Why is it interesting? Then a friend who uses Oculus Rift in his work commented on the fact that my piece performs from an analogue angle what the Oculus is trying to do: three-dimensional space mapping.

I guess for me, what makes the piece relevant today is the openness of experience that it offers. The viewer can see things and perceive their movement, and thus become aware of the space-time relationship within this somewhat self-enclosed and self-sustained organism.

II Machines: Clive Murphy & Trevor Tweeten continues at the Knockdown Center (52-19 Flushing Ave, Maspeth, Queens) through May 31.

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Xinran Yuan

Xinran Yuan (b. 1987, Tianjin, China). She holds an AB degree in Visual and Environmental Studies from Harvard University, and an MFA degree in Sculpture from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign....