The first test patterns I ever saw were slapsticky meta-jokes mixed into after-school cartoons. Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck might walk off frame and into one. Or they appeared as dated references in movies made before I was born, archaic technologies of a visual analog past. I have a vague memory of seeing the standard, vertical color bars of a test pattern late one night, but this could be one of those half-invented memories tumbled out of a well-mediated youth.
In reality, the test pattern invented to calibrate cameras, projectors and television sets has a noble history, as a mostly secret message from one technician to another, each one geared for the technology at hand, and oftentimes dismissed, trashed, never thought about after its usefulness ceased.
There are, in fact, different test patterns for different eras and different devices, each with its own lines and grids, colors and pictures, unique to the station, the camera, the projector.
All of the accoutrements of image making have a weird appeal, and the older the contraption, the more fascinated I am by its ingenious analog simplicity. The current de rigueur technology for seeing moving images is a revamped 3-D, which has been helping the film industry to bolster itself against Internet competition and piracy. It's difficult to bootleg 3-D. But even 3-D has its test patterns, ranging from optical-art swirls to floating color cubes, which try to get the left and right spheres lined up.
To me, the different test patterns have never been useful, even when they are in use. They were always just abstractions, always just art.
Artist Lucy Raven has her own unique fascination with test patterns. Her particular area of research is the patterns used by projectionists, which typically are tossed out after the machine they were built to calibrate retired. These bits of film have survived in curious ways, often accidentally, sometimes kept as artifactual collections by a projectionist. The different styles, shapes, colors and designs each tell a different story, hieroglyphics referring to hidden and layered meanings.
For her current exhibition at the Hammer Museum, Raven has scanned many of the projectionist test patterns she has found, which are all different sizes, and transferred them to 35mm, the standard but soon-to-be-antiquated film for the motion picture industry. They're all collected into one film and projected onto a single screen, one after another, each for a split second. Speeding by, they become a kaleidoscopic array, as brilliant colors, forms and shapes layer before the eye.
The film is titled RP31, from a series called “RPx,” titled after RP40, a commonly used chart made by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. RP stands for “Recommended Practices,” a term of art meaning the guidelines for professionals to best use a particular piece of equipment.
The art-historical precedent for Raven's work goes back to structuralist film, a loose crew of filmmaker-artists who became interested in the literal “structure” of film, not only technically but also its forms of reception and distribution. One of our local heroes of that moment, Morgan Fisher, made many works that speak to Raven's exhibit, the most prominent being the 35-minute Standard Gauge (1984), a stream of leftover film strips collected by Fisher when he worked as an editor in the commercial film industry. Standard Gauge, taken from the industry term, is a love letter to film and a kind of autobiography for the time Fisher was making it.
Raven's RP31 has the presumption of a cold indexing, from the arrangement of the patterns for pure technical use to the fact that the hand or perspective of the artist is not involved explicitly at all, a standard practice of conceptual art. But the array flickering across the screen creates an experience of delight and affection. Why would someone, anyone, save these bits of technical scrap unless they loved them? They were harbored by projectionists perhaps for the same reason that Raven collected them, and they have a kind of grace. Besides the strange power of their lines and colors seen for a fraction of a second, a part of their beauty is their history, their simple connection to the changing ways of seeing moving pictures.
Raven isn't the only artist to find an interest in the changing nature of media, from film stock to digital, and the way in which images have undergone an epochal shift. But her piece at the Hammer Museum, with its own history in structuralism and conceptualism, becomes a strobing beauty, a love letter to a form, a history skittering by one frame at a time.
Raven's exhibit runs through Sunday, Jan. 20. She will deliver a lecture at the Hammer at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 8.