Tacita Dean Wants To Save Film By Documenting Obsolescing Technologies

by Gillian Sagansky

…My English Breath in Foreign Clouds is on view at Marian Goodman Gallery until April 23, 2016
When Kodak announced that it would discontinue their iconic Kodachrome film in 2009, the debate as to the longevity of the medium was brought to the fore. While efforts to revive film have surfaced in a variety of forms, such as the Impossible Project and directors like Quentin Tarantino who insist on using it, the task remains an onerous one. But film’s rapid demise is felt as strongly as its’ victories, particularly in Hollywood, where the digitalization of the world has already wreaked havoc on analog mediums, especially with technologies such as the RED camera and other cost-efficient alternatives. This uphill battle is felt most strongly by those who wage it daily such as artist Tacita Dean, who’s work is devoted to the medium. So when the Getty Research Institute asked the Berlin-based filmmaker to do an artist’s residency in Los Angeles, Dean accepted the challenge and committed to the more urgent task at hand—fighting for the medium of film. With an ambitious to-do list, the renowned British artist uprooted and headed to Hollywood, where she has been living since July of 2014.

Dean, who works across a variety of different mediums, is known for her poetically poignant documentation of outdated systems, processes, and things on the brink of obsolescence—from nostalgic postcards and crumbling buildings, to the lives and overlooked work of aging and deceased artists—it’s no surprise that film is her preferred medium. Dean often uses chance as material itself, like in her current project for the Getty, in which she randomly selects a box containing historical remnants of a bygone era from the museum’s archive and photographs its contents. For instance, the first box she opened contained the key to Auguste Rodin’s studio. “That was the symbolic beginning of this journey. I didn’t want to go there with any pre-existing idea of what was inside any of the boxes. I wanted to just point and say ‘that box,’ and be surprised by its contents. I enjoy the narrative of research,” she explains of her ongoing journey for the Getty.

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Tacita Dean sits within her exhibition at Marian Goodman Gallery, New York

But as things tend to evolve in the world of Tacita Dean, six months into this task, a chance encounter with a cloud forced her to put her project on hold. “I was driving down Sunset Boulevard and there was this incredible cloud—this really beautiful perfect cloud,” she explains, “in Europe you don’t get those types of clouds, and I was just beguiled by it.” Enraptured by its beauty and simplicity, Dean diverted from her project for the Getty and began production on a series of 50 cloud works in varying mediums (from chalkboard to charcoal), which are currently exhibited alongside 3 other artworks and two short films this month at her exhibition at Marian Goodman Gallery in New York, entitled …My English Breath in Foreign Clouds. In one film, Portraits (2016), Dean filmed California-based artist David Hockney as he chain-smoked 5 cigarettes. “He’s very fanatical about his right to smoke,” Dean says of Hockney, a recent acquaintance whom she met at a dinner in L.A. “When he was a young man it was illegal to be gay, now he can be gay but he it’s illegal to smoke in most public places. David says, ‘it’s always something.’”

Since arriving in L.A., her efforts to save and revive the dying medium have not been in vain. In March of last year, she persuaded the Getty to hold a symposium with prominent industry leaders to discuss the future of film. “All these people working in film - from Hollywood, to film lab workers and preservationists – they all sat around a table for the first time to acknowledge that we have a problem,” she explains of the influencers who rallied together to save celluloid—specifically director Christopher Nolan, with whom she co-hosted the event and has been instrumental in her conservationist efforts. “There was something of a reinvigoration, a euphoria in that room. I fight for film in the art world and it can be pretty solitary—I oftentimes feel like I’m the only one. Now I’ve realized there is a whole universe out there,” she says of her alliance with the very industry that is also responsible for films’ demise, a factoid she notes is due in part to people’s perception of film and technological determinism in general. “People think film is bound to die because to them progress means that some technologies fall by the wayside,” she asserts. “If we take film back and say it's not technology, but rather a medium, we can take it out of this one way dialogue and out of this modernist trope that film is destined for failure,” she explains.

Despite persistent difficulties finding labs equipped to develop film, Dean remains hopeful about its’ future, and maintains, that contrary to public belief, she is not opposed to digital at all (in fact the majority of photographs she’s taken of her 10 year old son have been on her iPhone), but rather the loss of an entire art form. “Digital just doesn’t last, I opened an image of my son from when he was born and I got half an image because of the digital discomposure rate,” she quips. “My generation keeps boxes of slides and photographs, and your generation is anti-stuff—but I’ll tell you one thing - when there's a huge electromagnetic explosion and everyone loses everything, at least my work will be safe.”

…My English Breath in Foreign Clouds is on view at Marian Goodman Gallery until April 23, 2016

More on Tacita Dean's efforts with Christopher Nolan

Photographed by Fabrizio Amoroso

Set Design by Holli Featherson