Cross Contamination in the Movie Machine: The Darkroom Experience with Christine Lucy Latimer

Cross Contamination in the Movie Machine: The Darkroom Experience with Christine Lucy Latimer.” In Christine Lucy Latimer: Media Archaeologist, edited by Mike Hoolboom (Toronto/Ottawa: Conversalon / Canadian Film Institute, 2019), 68-72.

Peel the skin away from my eyes and look in


Like most stories that involve friendship and cinephilia, this tale begins with a few anecdotes about our time spent together in a dark room. I confess, Christine Lucy Latimer and I spent numerous afternoons and nights together watching one of the most extreme forms of slow cinema, an incredibly complex genre that remains unknown to most film scholars and that has relatively few contemporary connoisseurs. This genre of experimental slow cinema usually isn’t fully developed and most of it feels like it is still in-process. Fortunately, CLL is one of the foremost experts in the genre.

Whenever life became too stressful, CLL and I would retreat to Gallery 44’s darkroom, a well-equipped bunker in the basement of 401 Richmond Street West, to process our ever-expanding collections of unprocessed film. My own collection usually consists of a wide variety of discontinued film stocks and formats, mainly exposed film rolls stolen from cameras in second hand stores. CLL’s collection often consists of her own images, many the result of her own hard labour and conceptually complex processes. In the darkroom we would watch our images slowly emerge, an extremely enjoyable, yet often stressful, process. It was during our time spent in the darkroom that I began to understand CLL’s artistic practice and experimental methodology.

Like every experimentalist that transforms chemical compounds and reflected light into images, CLL is considered a contemporary alchemist. Given the important role that alchemy plays in CLL’s practice, it isn’t a mere coincidence that the Melvins debut album Gluey Porch Treatments, released on Alchemy Records, could often be heard loudly reverberating throughout the basement of 401 Richmond on those late nights spent watching the images form. Ex-Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl describes the album as both heavier and better than Black Sabbath. Although the films and videos of CLL are often silent, the images themselves were never formed in silence, and as such, the sludgy residue of eclectic forms of free jazz, metal, punk, and noise music can be felt in her work.

As an experienced alchemist, CLL left chance to the backgammon board, a game that she and many of her friends, including myself, would spend countless summer nights playing on the deck of her apartment in Toronto’s West End. In the darkroom, CLL would meticulously calculate and measure the chemicals and temperatures needed to produce her desired results. Nothing short of the required twenty dump and fills to stop the ritual would satisfy CLL. As her aspiring apprentice, she would often ask me, “How many dump and fills did you just perform?” To which I responded, “Probably about twenty, for sure.” She would then scold in jest, “No way! I was counting and you only performed eighteen,” and I would be obligated by the Universal Laws to fill and dump an additional two times.

Reticulated image found on an undeveloped 120 roll from circa 1930.
Image processed with Christine Lucy Latimer.

The alchemist processes that CLL has spent her life developing are rigorous, yet still highly unstable and the result of intense experimentation. As such, at times they didn’t produce the imagined results. When a process would fail, CLL began thinking about potential solutions. At times the solution would be to start the project again, trying a slightly different path. No big deal, shoot some more and try to avoid this type of failure in the future. At other times, the solution would be to accept the outcome and embrace it, to celebrate it as something new, different and unexpected. Overall, I was just happy if any image emerged and considered it a particularly good day if I didn’t spill developer or some other caustic material on my only pair of pants.

All of these darkroom antics prove useful in analyzing CLL’s work. Even the act of religiously entering a dark room in the digital era suggests something about her practice, as the images she produces are often the result of antiqued processes created using obsolete technologies. In spite of this, the images are not attempts to fetishize these processes, nor are they an attempt to show the superiority of analogue techniques over digital. Through medium cross-contamination, CLL is exploring antiquated media in an attempt to better understand the new epoch we are entering. Contemporary media archeologists examine human activity through the analysis of antiqued media tools. In contrast, artists like CLL are not simply analyzing and theorizing about antiqued technologies, they are attempting to understand them within a contemporary context by actively engaging with them. Through these experiments, it is possible to better understand what has been lost and what has been gained through digital technologies.

Consider CLL’s Super 8 Sun Beam (2016), a piece in which a lens flare is captured by a super 8 camera pointed directly at the sun. The film was digitized, transformed into a short GIF and displayed in a digital picture frame. By displaying it in this form, CLL poses the question: in what ways does this remain a super 8 sunbeam? This relatively simple gesture, while aesthetically pleasing, would not have been possible to create in the recent past. For instance, it would not have been possible to use analog video cameras to record this image since pointing the camera directly at the sun would have damaged it. Moreover, with many early digital cameras (or some of the more inexpensive cameras available today), there would have been a black spot where the sun is, since the camera would switch-off parts of the sensor if they receive too much light in order to avoid being damaged. With super 8, it was possible to capture this rather innocent looking sunbeam; however, exhibiting it poses another problem. By transferring it into its current form, CLL was able to present a pristine version of the loop without having to make duplicates of the camera original and without having to worry about a projector damaging the loop.

A few years ago, after a long day of processing 35mm film, CLL showed me several beautiful, black-and-white images. The strip of film consisted of a series of psychedelic images, all produced in double. This strip was the test-run for a piece that would eventually become Stereovision Tanks Disguised as Aquariums (2014)The images themselves were long-exposures of the colourful Mac OS screensaver. Ironically, screensavers are no longer necessary on modern LCD flatscreen monitors, they are a relic from an era in which CRT monitors would develop “burn in” if exposed to the same image for too long. A screensaver was used to avoid having an image “burnt” into the screen. The long-exposure photography used by CLL allowed the movement of the screensaver to finally be captured, in essence, burnt into the film. All of the images were produced in double since CLL captured the screensaver using a 1950s stereoscopic camera. The final piece consisted of a series of eight stereoscopic images, each displayed in their own stereoscope viewfinders, providing the images produced on a flatscreen with the illusion of depth.

Installation documentation of Stereovision Tanks Disguised as Aquariums (2014) at The Robert McLaughlin Gallery.
(L-R: Leslie Supnet, Cameron Moneo, Stephen Broomer).

All of this might sound too serious; hence, it is worth repeating that CLL and I had serious fun processing film together in the darkroom. Processing film takes time and that time spent together involved much laughing, goofing around, philosophizing, talking shit, enjoying silence, discussing our personal lives, listening to music too loudly, gossiping and generally escaping the usual pressures that come from living as an artist within a large metropolitan city where the rents are too high and paycheques too scarce. Those nights in the darkroom reinforce, at least to me, an aspect of art that is too often overlooked, namely, its social function. Did CLL and I make masterpieces those nights in the darkroom? Probably, but is that really the point?

Art making can be an inexpensive and enjoyable way to explore your creative energy and to enjoy the company of people you wish you had more time for. Through the creative process bonds our formed and rekindled. It is evident throughout her work that CLL uses both the process of art making and the works themselves as a way of forging bonds. For instance, consider Over {Past:Future} Sight (2006), a film based on footage of her father’s laser eye surgery; Jane’s Birthday (2013), a video that attempts to transform a day at the beach with her sister that turned sour into some- thing beautiful; or Fraction Refrain (for Loeser, Evans & Snow) (2014), a video inspired by Micheal Snow’s aptly titled poem, Poem (1957) which elegantly documents a pinball machine, the prize possession of her partner at the time, Mark Loeser, a gift from their friend, pinball wizard Justin Evans.

Finally, many of the nights CLL and I spent in the darkroom together were after Pleasure Dome board meetings, an artist-run programming collective for which we both volunteered. Our time spent there was difficult as the organization was in the process of radical transformation. Artist-run centres ruin lives. An account of our time spent together on this board is for another time, when the wounds are less fresh. Nevertheless, we both joined this board for the same reason, to support local culture and artists, to ensure artists are paid properly, and to create a space where art could fulfill its social function. We believe in a space, a dark room, where artists can connect with their peers, since the relationships formed in these spaces are crucial to our survival as artists.