13 January 2019

Julian Ross's essay on Blackout

The Kodak carousel slide projector has continued to be used by contemporary artists around the world for the past 15 years, despite no longer being produced since 2004. Now considered obsolete, the slide projector has come to evoke the past. The story of media history is often defined by the advent of technology, so the continued artistic use of an apparatus long after its industrial demise challenges this story. In the age of swipe and scroll, the ‘forgotten’ medium in the history of media technology gives us a moment to reconsider what we have lost and gained in the digital evolution. The exhibition at Kunsthal Rotterdam showcases 11 installations made by international artists after 2004, celebrating not only the heritage of the medium but also its extension into the contemporary context. Blackout, the title of the exhibition, refers to a distinctive characteristic of the slide projector – the intermittent moments of darkness between the projected slides. Unlike analogue film projection, which operates similarly, the slide projection’s low frame rate makes the oscillation between light and darkness visible to the human eye and distinctly felt. The title also references historical amnesia and collectively suppressed memories that many of the artworks call for us to remember.

While concerned with media archaeology, the exhibition considers historical memory in a socio-political context as well; many of the slide-based works illuminate lost or deliberately forgotten histories, reminding us that slide projectors were not only used for holiday photos and art history classes but also as a pedagogical tool by colonial powers. When the carousel slide projector first emerged in the mid-1960s, its accessibility and relative ease of use was embraced by the art community.

Now, it allows artists to explore historical memory from a personal perspective as an alternative to the simplified narratives of history. The works featured in Blackout see artists take history into their own hands.

Blocks of Limestone

Existing between still photography and the moving image of cinema, the slide projector itself has been neglected in art historical research as it falls between the cracks of different disciplines. It is part of the lineage of the pre-cinematic magic lantern slides but also continues to exist as digital slideshows (like PowerPoint) in the present-day context. This gives the slide image an elusive position in media history. Nevertheless, the slide projector, at least in its carousel format, is often remembered for its use by performance and conceptual artists in Europe and North America in the 1970s, used as documentation for their activities that can be presented in exhibition form. While these are significant contributions, it is a limited portrayal of how slides have been incorporated into contemporary art practice.

Blackout shows artists working with slide projectors in a variety of exhibition contexts; visitors to the exhibition will come across flickering synchronised multi-projection, contemplative slideshows and projections onto paintings and blocks of limestone. Featuring works by artists from Belgium, Brazil, India, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Thailand, UK, USA and Vietnam, Blackout seeks to alter the Eurocentric narrative that has defined the story of the artistic use of the carousel slide projector thus far with an international showcase of artists.

Special Events

An exhibition tour with the artists will take place at Kunsthal Rotterdam on Sunday 27 January at 13:00, after which Cauleen Smith will perform the latest iteration of Black Utopia LP (2012/2019). This is a slide-based performance that celebrates Sun Ra and evokes African diaspora history, for which she has created an extra carousel loaded with images from research in the Netherlands. Blackout will also take part in sound//vision, a late-night programme of audio-visual performances at WORM Rotterdam, where Raha Raissnia, Luis Macías and others will stage performances using the carousel slide projector over the first weekend of the festival. Macías will also host a two-day, hands-on expanded slide projection workshop at Filmwerkplaats on 24-25 January.

Blackout is based on research conducted by Julian Ross at Centre for Research and Education in Arts and Media (CREAM), University of Westminster, as part of his Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship funded by The Leverhulme Trust. The exhibition will travel to Ambika P3, London, in March 2019 and Greylight Projects, Brussels, in April 2019.

Watch films by Blackout filmmakers on IFFR Unleashed

Other blog posts on IFFR 2019