Gibson + Recoder: Articulating the Material Substance of Light

Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder have been collaborating since 2000,  
producing numerous expanded cinema installations and performances that go beyond the category of moving image to incorporate the visual, mechanical and conceptual qualities of film projection.

“The art of projection is an area we’ve been working in for 15 years creating ways of articulating the material substance of light,” says Luis. “In the same way a sculptor might work with a material they chisel away at, we find ways of carving, subtracting and adding light.”

Sandra and Luis produce both performance and installation work. When performing, they are sometimes in front of an audience, while at other times they are in the projection booth each operating a projector. They will work in tandem with traditional film, experimental film and sometimes no film, just light. They come equipped with glass, colored filters and a humidifier that produces vapor. As the projector rolls, they each interact with the projected light creating a cinematic progression of light and color that is accompanied by sound produced by a collaborator.

During their residency at VCCA, Sandra and Luis set up a number of camera obscura situations in studios VA 7 and VA 8. The pieces on view during VCCA’s Open Studios were beautiful, fragile and mysterious. In these works, Sandra and Luis are co-opting a naturally occurring scientific phenomenon, but they’re doing it in such an interesting way, making us think about light—its fragility and power and also about perception itself. Yes, we are looking at reality, but because of the nature of optics, it’s upside down. The light/image is further altered depending on aperture size and where it’s directed. Sandra and Luis use wrinkled and torn paper and supermarket plastic bags blown about by electric fans to add texture and movement. These various techniques transform the image into something blurred and fleeting, quite separate from the outside world it’s capturing. It’s as if we’re looking at it from a remove of distance or time.

Not all the camera obscura pieces featured recognizable images. One piece used filters so the image was abstracted and the work became more a study of colored light and shadow. Another used a revolving glass vase as a lens to bend and warp the light creating dynamic projected reflections. “We’re moving away from the obvious camera obscura ‘how’s it done’ mechanical thing,” says Luis. “People tend to get hung up on trying to figure out what it is. We want to put layers in front of that so people can experience it first and then ask that question.”

People also tend to associate the camera obscura with photography. “The camera obscura has been hijacked by photography through the use of the pinhole camera,” says Sandra. “We see the camera obscura as micro-cinema, or more precisely, live cinema projection.” When you think about it, this is exactly right because the light that the camera obscura captures recreates an exact image of the living, breathing, moving world.

The camera obscura is a form of found art, since it records what is already there. It’s also low tech–you only need a darkened room and a small opening for light–and ancient; Aristotle himself makes note of the phenomenon.

I like the way that Sandra and Luis take something antiquated and overlooked like the camera obscura or film technology with all its interesting retro looking artifacts and somehow made it cutting edge. They’ve done it by taking a completely different approach, highlighting the means (the equipment, the methodology) rather than the end (a precise recreation of the world outside/the moving image) to create thought provoking and beautiful work.

Sandra and Luis are based in New York and have exhibited and performed internationally at the Whitney Museum of American Art, MoMA PS1, Mad. Sq. Art, Performa, Light Industry, The Kitchen, Anthology Film Archives, Microscope Gallery, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Hallwalls, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, REDCAT, Ballroom Marfa, Robischon Gallery, Sundance Film Festival, CATE, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, Sagamore, Toronto International Film Festival, Images Festival, BFI London Film Festival, Tate Modern, Barbican Art Gallery, ICA, Dundee Contemporary Arts, Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Viennale, Austrian Film Museum, Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen, HMKV, RIXC, 25FPS, Courtisane, M HKA, STUK, BOZAR, TENT, International Film Festival Rotterdam, Reina Sofia, La Casa Encendida, CCCB, Museu do Chiado, Serralves Foundation, Solar Galeria de Arte Cinemática, Careof/Viafarini DOCVA, Atelier Impopulaire, Morra Foundation, Nam June Paik Art Center, Yokohama Museum of Art, and the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. Sandra and Luis both have individual works in the permanent collection at the Whitney Museum of American Art that will be on included in the inaugural exhibition at its new location, America is Hard to See (May 1- September 27, 2015).

In 2010 Sandra and Luis were awarded a commission by Madison Square Park Conservancy in New York to create a public art piece that was exhibited in Spring 2013. Topsy-Turvy: A Camera Obscura Installation was subsequently exhibited the following fall at Brooklyn Bridge Park.

As so often happens at VCCA, an artwork from one discipline inspired a Fellow in another one. Following is a poem by Maria Terrone written after seeing Sandra and Luis's camera obsura pieces


Inside a vast space blackened
for Sandra & Luis’s camera obscura show,
a pair of glass “eyes” on one wall projected
the outdoors onto a wrinkled vellum roll,
a mural changing with every shift of cloud.

And from another wall, onto
a chain-pharmacy plastic bag—shadows
of Virginia hills, trees and barn grainy
on this day of rain, tossed about
in the wind-storm of a hidden fan,
that place we think we know
seen smaller, upside down and backwards.

As I walked past, my body changed
the light, which altered the images,
and I felt like a mad god
holding sway over my kingdom askew.

The next day, still delirious,
I walked the sky like a plank

underneath a dome of grass.


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