The Public Cinema: Roger Beebe’s Films for 1-8 Projectors
Knoxville Museum of Art
Tuesday, February 6, 7:00 PM
Roger Beebe doesn’t just make short films–he performs them. Projectors are his instruments, and he lines up eight of them in the back of a theater in order to cast multiple distinct images on screen at once, stacking snippets of sampled celluloid to create a dizzying collage of movement and color. Turn around while watching one of his shorts, and you’ll see Beebe himself frantically racing from reel to reel, loading up celluloid loops and orchestrating all their cues to land just right. Beebe insists that his laboriousness is not the show–the screen is–but the human element of Beebe’s plate spinning is the essential component of the work.
Turning film-projection into a performance, Beebe’s medium blurs the line between film and music. However, Films for 1-8 Projectors is distinctly different than the musical composition that inspired its name, Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. Reich’s opus is an hour-long experiment in extended syncopation that crucially lacks a conductor; in Beebe’s work, the conductor is the composition. With his own two hands, Beebe manipulates dozens of analog artifacts that can’t be fully automated; as a result, there’s a degree of spontaneity and authenticity to every performance that can never be replicated with 100% accuracy. Beebe’s work is certainly indebted to music as well as film, but he’s not Steve Reich–he’s more akin to block-party turntablists like Afrika Bambaataa and DJ Kool Herc or plunderphonics wizards like DJ Shadow and J Dilla, who turned the vinyl format itself into raw material for inspired new creations.
Like the work of those famous samplers, the inner-workings of Beebe’s art are often not his own. Films for 1-8 Projectors is the work of a scavenging archivist, lifting from workplace instructional videos, science tapes for children, and the like–most of which seem to have been produced when celluloid was the world’s foremost method of data storage. Beebe lets the vibrancy of that data flow into dialogue with itself, turning perfunctory industrial cinema into avant-garde artistry using a simple method of juxtaposition that’s as old as the magic lantern show.
Roger Beebe performed Films for 1-8 Projectors at Big Ears in 2017, but Films for 1-8 Projectors is, by its very nature, a dynamic, evolving thing–so it should come as no surprise that the version making its way to Knoxville as part of Beebe’s 3-month, 3,000-mile roadshow, is a different animal. According to The Public Cinema, it will include at least three new shorts, which range in topic from “the forbidden pleasures of men crying (Historia Calamitatum (The Story of My Misfortunes)) to Las Vegas suicides (Money Changes Everything) and the real spaces of the virtual economy.” In addition, I am hoping to see encore performances of two of the Big Ears performance’s most playful segments: (1) “Beginnings,” an audio-only alphabetized reading of the Genesis creation myth’s component words, and (2) “AAAAA Motion Picture,” which marries images of similarly named businesses with phone inquiries about what all those “A’s” stand for.
Perhaps the most representative segment of the program is Soundfilm, which illustrates how audio is processed by the ear and brain. This felt like a centerpiece of Films for 1-8 Projectors at the Big Ears performance, and is almost certain to be part of next Tuesday’s event. Beebe’s Vimeo offers a taste:
Although uploads like this one make helpful reference points, watching any portion of Films for 1-8 Projectors on a computer screen feels a bit like defeating the purpose. Beebe’s work is all about being in the room with Beebe and his projectors, witnessing something amazing come together in real time. It radiates the aura of the authentic, something that seems hopelessly lost in the brave new world of CGI-production, digital projection, and on-demand streaming. Avant-garde cinema almost never gets decent theatrical or home-video distribution anyways, making singular screenings once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for public consumption–but Films for 1-8 Projectors is something else entirely: a film experience that requires total presence, both of artist and audience.