One of the most exciting things about working for an institution that collects contemporary art is the opportunity to see what artists are currently creating and contemplating. It’s a very rewarding part of my job to organize visits in which publishers show our curatorial staff the prints and books they have recently published. On one such visit last winter, Forth Estate—a Brooklyn-based publisher that has worked with emerging artists since its founding in 2005—presented two screenprints by Lucy Raven (the first two of a planned series), printed at Axelle Editions, which we have acquired for MoMA’s collection.
In her practice, Raven is interested in labor and the way in which images work: how they might convey industry and how they operate within larger workforces (often unbeknownst to the viewer). This is very clear in her film China Town (2009), a series of still images overlaid by an audio narrative that traces the transformation of copper from its raw form in a Nevada mine to its sale as wire in China.
PR1 and PR2 (PR standing for “print registration”) relate to a more recent project that focuses on a set of images that perform labor in facilitating the viewing process. For the last couple years, Raven has collected examples of test patterns that were used by projectionists to calibrate projectors prior to showing a movie reel. Not only did these patterns adapt a machine for optimal viewing by human eyes, but they also created the most ideal viewing conditions for the collective (standardized) sensory experience of the audience.
The contents of these images were dictated by the equipment for which they were made and therefore changed with every technological adaptation. They have very often outlasted the projectors they once calibrated as the technology has become obsolete. As film itself becomes a relic alongside digital technologies, the test patterns no longer serve an active purpose.
In her ongoing video project RPx (RP stands for “recommended practice” and x corresponds to the number of patterns in each iteration) Raven combines test patterns, often accompanied by their audio counterparts, in a continuous loop or cycle. Last year, RP47 was shown at the Whitney Biennial and another version, RP31, was exhibited at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.
This is the first time the artist has transferred the patterns to paper, which raises some interesting issues. For one, the test patterns often started their lives as homemade, low-tech collages with watercolor additions. To return the compositions to paper via film highlights the way the images have changed visually and how their purpose has been altered. Secondly, it remarks upon the eventual death of film, while simultaneously preserving the images in a static format that will most likely outlast their film counterparts. By appropriating these images from film and placing them in a still medium, Raven stresses the quickly fading mechanisms that have worked to standardize the moving world around us. No longer flashing quickly before the viewer, their original purpose negated, the test patterns have been given a second life by the artist wherein the eye has more time to dwell on the aesthetics of the compositions and their debt to formalist painting.