Film as Art or Art in Cinema? Margaret Honda’s “Color Correction” (2015)

December 2019

In the concluding chapter to Erika Balsom’s Exhibiting Cinema in Contemporary Art, she recaps the situation ever-present in art museums, that “cinema enters the gallery under the specter of mass cultural obsolesce but also infuses that space with spectacular novelty” (186). A ripe subject to be sure, scholarship on how moving-images have integrated into the museum experience either as the art itself or as didactic platforms, has increased over the past decade. In fact, Balsom’s book appears the same year as the collection of essays Preserving and Exhibiting Media Art: Challenges and Perspectives from the same publisher. In that text, Philippe Dubois calls this creeping of (all things and concepts) cinema out of the traditional black-box triadic of projector-screen-spectator into the space of contemporary art a “cinema effect” (311), introducing it as both a conceptual framework for revisiting object-based work in an institution’s collection, but also the format taken up increasingly by fine artists themselves. If, returning to Balsom, “the increased integration of cinema into the spaces of art after 1990 enables a rethinking of the histories of cinema” (185), can we imagine the reciprocal? That is, could the integration of art into the spaces of cinema propose equally evocative revelations? The phenomenon only seems to raise eyebrows, however, when the object and its experience are leaving the movie theatre, so to speak, for the gallery. But if it could, what would this art be then that wasn’t also (just) cinema?

The 35mm film Color Correction by Los-Angeles-based artist Margaret Honda may be our entry point, in a flexing of media archeological discourse, it is both a rupture manifested and a process by which a rupture is revealed. Produced in 2015, Color Correction was made from the color timing tapes of what the artist describes as “an unknown Hollywood feature” (Honda, “Notes”). Scraps of the commercial industry, timing tapes are encoded analog instructions to color correct a film scene-by-scene. From a preservationist point-of-view, the timing tape is a kind of metadatic object, from which we can determine certain properties about the “original,” in this instance now documented, preserved, and performed in the form of this “new” film.[1] Excluding a link to the ready-made, however, Color Correction’s relationship to cinema seems so far positively indexical. Indeed, this is demonstrated in how it was made but not what it actually looks like: by running the tapes with blank 35mm stock, rather than with its corresponding images, the result are “scenes” of solid monochromatic color. No representational imagery or soundtrack to hint at the narrative, what we are left with of the “original” are the filter colors and the edits, clocking in at a silent 101 minutes.

This “overlooked media artifact” (Sobchack 324) is now a generative tool for artistic production. The timing tapes attempt through their invisibility and status as a by-product to produce “a ‘presence effect’ that is capable of overturning the premises (and comprehension) of established media hierarchies” (Sobchack 324). This description of presence has a surprising resonance with how Honda describes her film herself: “It is neither a shadow nor a ghost of that film, but is something more like a layer that remains after another is withheld” (Honda, “Notes”). Borrowing from Annet Dekker’s discussion about process in Net Art, we can overturn with her the idea that waste is “the end state of objects” (117). She continues:

However, emphasizing waste as redundant, a residue, a remainder, obscures the ongoing and continuous status of the object itself. In other words, it denies what objects are yet to become. (117)

The layer, this “yet to become,” is what Color Correction is, a remediation of the timing tapes. As one of its methods of inquiry, media archeology seeks to reconsider the obsolete and failures of media, most often following a line drawn after the digital turn and putting theorists in a “retrospective and prospective frame of mind” (Elsaesser 17). Certainly, timing tapes themselves are in no way a failure, but it shouldn’t go unnoticed that they were an industry standard for correcting inconsistencies, lest a mood be broken or our eye be unnecessarily distracted. In its “continuous status,” the film silently manages to dismantle the “hegemony of the cooperating systems of representation and exhibition” as Balsom describes after Baudry (73), though not as critique. Rather, it does so by way of an epistemological deconstruction of the industry-apparatus and as a method that very intentionally seeks to reveal its sculptural elements: the film print, as physical object, travels through the system as well as the projector, gets handled, takes up space.

It’s not just the film as you’re seeing it on the screen. It’s everything around it having to be fine-tuned to a certain standard for the experience to register in the way intended. The SMPTE standard of luminance on the screen, all of that has to be met—these conditions helped me to understand the films as material objects, not just images. (Honda)

While for the uninitiated viewer it may simply be projected light, the sculptural also finds itself in the embodiment of experience; i.e. the audience member shifting in a creaky seat trying to find their way in to a feature-length silent film made up purely of colors which appear one after the other in no discernable order or consistent length of time. The body is reacting within a kind of inverted “cinema of attractions,” at once potentially reeling from boredom and next from the constant testing of our optical receptors. Normally, we are not aware of the changes taking place as part of color grading, as Mark-Paul Meyer explains in Restoration of Motion Picture Film, but here it’s all the action we’ve got.

The human eye is surprisingly adaptable and over a wide range of screen colour temperature…adaptation occurs, whereby the ‘over stimulated’ cones tire and after a few minutes of viewing in a darkened room with no permanent visual reference, the image perceived tends to become neutral regardless of the projection light source (150).

In Color Correction, there is constant visual reference in the form of the last “scene” or color, such that because the experience is pronounced by its lack of sound and representational action, it feels “completely unpredictable” (Honda). Simply, it makes us aware of our watching.

But bound in the fact that it only exists as a 35mm print and whose filmmaker refuses its digitization, it perhaps also makes us aware of where we are watching. Its exhibition will of course become ever more privileged because “[f]or the last 20 years, watching movies in a movie theatre has been irreversibly declining as a normative mode of the experience of cinema” (Allen 265). To add to this, there are fewer and fewer projection booths with analog projection capabilities. In fact, Color Correction has only been presented six times. Out of those six, five of the venues have either been inside (physically or organizationally) museums or contemporary art centers, prompting a look via new cinema history of the “interconnected organisational cultures that characterise the film production industry” (Maltby 9). Echoing the opening quote from Balsom, we can ask anew along with Elsaesser, “Where is cinema?” (21) and how has such a film’s “entry into the contemporary art museum” presented “a revaluation of obsolescence as the new authenticity of the avant-garde” (22), returning our argument to the auratic space of the museum by entering through the door of the art economy’s prized exclusivity. Is it here that we find art in the space of cinema?

To be sure, the desire for legitimacy has constructed many film historiographical narratives that perpetuate a canon in the “film as art” category. For example, as Christian Olesen investigates, the ciné-clubs of 1910s and 20s that applied concepts like photogénie as a rubric for measuring aesthetic value. While Color Correction doesn’t possess photogénie in a conventional sense—although it may generate for some “the experience of a particularly sublime cinematic moment” (Olesen 53) through its series of illuminated colors—its connection to avant-garde film is clear. Mainly this is by aesthetic analysis, as a work that prompts the viewer to rediscover some of “cinema’s essential properties” (Olesen 53), here distilled to color, the edit, and projected light. Given that color is only one of two remaining traces, there may be some assumptions that we can make. Perhaps pale yellows describe daytime while cooler tones evoke darker moods or night; “the colors, in a subdued way, help to emphasize the setting” (Yumibe 147). But as we also know from early cinema scholarship, “[e]very film develops its own structural arrangement of color segments, in order to orient the audience to the film’s spatiotemporal structure” (Flueckiger 21). While we cannot know if the colors are an example of a trend, an indicator of particular film stocks, or its own “structural arrangement,” they are nice to look at.

Certainly, an examination of Color Correction could be furthered through the lens of aesthetic film history, drawing a line from avant-garde to structuralist practices to this medium-specific work. In fact, it immediately presents intriguing problematics. For example, Honda requires Color Correction be well-maintained with the print as close to pristine as possible, for if it was to show too many traces of its own projection that’s all the viewer would see and it would become a completely different film. But how do we read that against structuralism as Elsaesser describes it, as a “radical form” of the avant-garde that “obsesses over material traces—dust-particles, scratches, sprocket holes” (“What is Left” 36)?  It’s a topic for another time along with a feminist perspective that picks up on, for example, Yumibe’s scholarship about women’s labor in coloring techniques of early cinema. Given that all three of Honda’s films consider color and materiality, what does it say that in order to obtain what she wanted, Honda had to work with lab technicians in the industry, all of whom she named are men? While the question posed initially didn’t exactly get an answer, all of the new questions that Color Correction prompted take inspiration from a media archeological approach. For, to recontextualize Sobchack, “[i]n the case of media archeology, an overlooked media artifact (whether realized or only imagined and/or schematized) seems, at once, both familiar and strange” and such things are always worth inquiry.

Works Cited:

Allen, Robert C.. “Getting to Going to the Show.” New Review of Film and Television Studies, vol. 8, no. 3, 2010, pp. 264-276.

Elsaesser, Thomas. “General Introduction – Media Archaeology: Foucault’s Legacy.” Film History as Media Archaeology: Tracking Digital Cinema. Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press, 2016, pp. 17-46.

—. “What is Left of the Cinematic Apparatus, or Why We Should Retain (and Return to) It.” Recherches sémiotiques / Semiotic Inquiry, vol. 31, no 1-2-3, 2011, pp. 33-44.

Balsom, Erika. Exhibiting Cinema in Contemporary Art. Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press, 2013.

Dekker, Annet. Collection and Conserving Net Art: Moving Beyond Conventional Methods. London and New York, Routledge, 2018.

Dubois, Philippe. “A ‘Cinema Effect’ in Contemporary Art.” Preserving and Exhibiting Media Art: Challenges and Perspectives, edited by Julia Noordegraaf, Cosetta G. Saba, Barbara Le Maître, and Vinzenz Heidiger, pp. 311-325.

Flueckiger, Barbara. “Film Colors: Materiality, Technology, Aesthetics.” Color Mania. The Material of Color in Photography and Film, edited by Barbara Flueckiger, Eva Hielscher, and Nadine Wietlisbach, Zurich, Lars Müller Publishers, 2020.

Honda, Margaret. Interview by J. Louise Makary. “Material Witness: Interview with Margaret Honda.” INCITE!, 14 Dec. 2016, http://www.incite-online.net/honda.html. Accessed 17, Dec. 2019.

—. Program notes for Interaction of Formats: Color in Film and Video curated and presented by the author, Portland, Oregon, December 13th, 2016.

Maltby, Richard. “New Cinema Histories.” Explorations in New Cinema History: Approaches and Case Studies, edited by Daniel Biltereyst, Richard Maltby, and Philippe Meers, Chichester, Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, pp. 3-13.

Meyer, Mark-Paul and Paul Read. Restoration of Motion Picture Film, Oxford, Butterworth-Heinemann, 2000.

Olesen, Christian. “Film as Art.” Film History in the Making: Film Historiography, Digitised Archives and Digital Research Dispositifs, Amsterdam, University of Amsterdam, Faculty of Humanities, 2017, pp. 50-66.

Sobchack, Vivian. “Afterword: Media Archaeology and Re-presencing the Past.” Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications, edited by Erkki Huhtamo, Jussi Parikka, University of California Press, 2011, pp. 323-333.

Yumibe, Joshua. “The Colour Image.” The Image in Early Cinema. Form and Material, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2018, pp. 1420150.

[1] Both the distribution copy and the preservation copy of Color Correction, as well as those of Honda’s two other films, are held by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles.