Initial testing and sequencing set-up of Cinematic Illumination, February, 2020. Shown: Shuzo Azuchi Gulliver. Cinematic Illumination. 1968–69. 1,350 black-and-white slides, 108 color gels, disco ball, and sound, 114:45 min., looped. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis

Everything Is Illuminated: Shuzo Azuchi Gulliver’s Immersive Cinema

From discos to eBay, a curator and a conservator talk about reconstructing a work first seen in a ’60s Tokyo nightclub.

Sophie Cavoulacos: The installation of Cinematic Illumination in MoMA’s Kravis Studio is only the third time this Shuzo Azuchi Gulliver work has ever been presented, and the first time outside of Japan. It originally was a one-night slide performance, an expanded cinema event—that’s a term that refers to film works that purposefully do away with the cinema screen—and it was staged in a Tokyo nightclub, Killer Joe’s, in 1969 as part of a Fluxus festival. The artist was 19 years old at the time. He hadn’t gone to film school or art school. He grew up near Kyoto, where he was aware of people like Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. He hitchhiked to Tokyo during the Summer of Love, essentially to make films.

Peter Oleksik: We don’t know a lot about how Cinematic Illumination was installed in ’69. Gulliver doesn’t remember all the details.

SC: Killer Joe’s nightclub was a technological space. The slide projectors were already part of the infrastructure, as were these crazy pneumatic sculptures and adjustable walls. We have one black-and-white photograph of the work performed in ’69. We have three or four photographs of what the nightclub looked like in the period, and we have one diagram of how the designers envisioned the nightclub to be.

Shuzo Azuchi Gulliver. Cinematic Illumination. 1968–69. Performance at Killer Joe’s, Tokyo, as part of the Intermedia Arts Festival, January 18, 19, and 21, 1969

Shuzo Azuchi Gulliver. Cinematic Illumination. 1968–69. Performance at Killer Joe’s, Tokyo, as part of the Intermedia Arts Festival, January 18, 19, and 21, 1969

PO: The way I always describe it is to imagine the early cinematic toy of a zoetrope on a huge scale. So a zoetrope you can get into. The work was reconstructed at the Tokyo Photographic Museum in 2017; the curator, Hiroko Tasaka, and independent scholar Go Hirasawa really brought it back to life and established the 360-degree screen and the 18-slide projectors—MoMA was indebted to the academic and technical work at TOP in a major way. I went to Japan to learn how they reconstructed the piece, and then built on that for our own reconstruction. Eighteen slide projectors are controlled via Arduino, which is basically a little computer that talks to those projectors and has them do a light show, if you will, for each position of the piece. There’s 81 slide positions in a slide projector and Gulliver utilized all of them.

SC: At MoMA, we are working in a very different space than Killer Joe’s or even the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum, with the Studio, which is special in terms of its technological capabilities, its double-height configuration, and also its existence as a time-based art space, not as a white cube gallery. We’re not a nightclub. It’s not about recreating something, but how do you channel it? I don’t want to pretend that I was there. I want to bring it into the future.

PO: Yes, I prefer “reconstruct” to “restore” because it’s not like we got back to something that existed in ’69. It’s more of an experience than a static thing.

Diagram of Killer Joe’s, whose designers, Rikuro Miyai and Yasuhiro Hayata, envisioned the club as a “transformable space”

Diagram of Killer Joe’s, whose designers, Rikuro Miyai and Yasuhiro Hayata, envisioned the club as a “transformable space”

Mitch Leitschuh and Chris Brown installing and aligning the projector images in the Marie Josée and Henry Kravis Studio, July 2020

Mitch Leitschuh and Chris Brown installing and aligning the projector images in the Marie Josée and Henry Kravis Studio, July 2020

SC: The work is almost like an art-historical optical illusion where we ask, “Wait, what story is this a part of?” Is this a Pop artwork that we didn’t know about, or does this fit into stories about slide technology? Slide projectors are really interesting because they’re both art and non-art machines, used in classrooms and in conventions and family homes. They’re not fine art equipment, right?

PO: Well, they are now! In the ’60s, they were very commonplace and you would encounter them in your home and in education settings. But now they are this sort of foreign equipment, and how does that impact the piece? That’s why it’s so great to have Gulliver available to us to walk us through this installation and have his input on these questions.

SC: Having the all-in-one environment aspect was the most important thing to create through the design. To think about what that first experience would be when you walked in was important for me. That visual impact. The room would feel so different if we didn’t have immediate immersion. Because the Studio is a theatrical space, we can install from the ceiling grid so everything kind of floats.

The other part was the music. The soundtrack and the projector loops have different durations and they play independently. So barring the law of probability, there aren’t two visits to Cinematic Illumination that are the same. That’s in part how, conceptually, you do the jump from nightclub to museum.

Animated gifs of high-resolution scans of Gulliver’s original slides approximate the work’s original motion

Animated gifs of high-resolution scans of Gulliver’s original slides approximate the work’s original motion

You’re transported to a different world outside of the Museum.
Peter Oleksik

PO: And, personally, I feel like you’re transported to almost a different world outside of the Museum. I think if it was in a different gallery or space, you would be more aware that you’re at MoMA and there’s The Starry Night next to you. The one thing that we have not achieved yet, that Gulliver mentioned to me the first time I met him, is that there’s no bar in the space!

When the media conservation team (myself and conservation fellows Caroline Gil and Lia Kramer) started approaching this installation, we had to do a few things, including making the slides. Slide film is no longer produced, so we have a process where we worked with outside vendors (Chicago Albumen Works) and basically reproduced slides using transparency film, which is very similar to slide film.

We got Gulliver’s original, unmounted slides from him. And “slides“ is actually a bit of a misnomer. He took a 16mm motion picture camera, and shot his friends jumping up and down, walking along a bridge, things like that, and took stills. Then he took that footage and blew it up. So he duplicated the 16mm and then enlarged it to 35mm motion picture film. Then he cut all that up and took the cut-up film and put it in the slide mount. So it wasn’t like he was making slides from the get-go. He was actually shooting motion picture film and then basically taking it apart.

SC: The work is actually a work of collage. In some ways, it’s like a handmade cinema collage work.

PO: Exactly. So we scanned all of that original material, and generated all the slides that we needed. The one difference is 35mm slides have a particular aspect ratio. What he used were actually these half-aperture mounts, and it’s because he cut up that 35mm film that he needed to crop it so that it’s much taller and narrower. So we had to figure out a way to get the same sort of aperture for the slide mount. 1,458 slides comprise the work, so we needed thousands of mounts. There was just no way we could get that quantity of slides, so we went with this custom option which gives us a lot of latitude for the future preservation of it.

Gulliver also put color into some of the slides. We needed to select color gels—the transparent colored film that you use for theatrical lighting. When Gulliver was in town, we had paint swatch equivalents for gels, and just went one by one, sticking them in the projectors to see which looked best.

Reviewing a selection of colored gels with the artist, November 2019

Reviewing a selection of colored gels with the artist, November 2019

So then we could also turn our attention to the projectors. We decided to use Ektagraphic slide projectors, which were made in the 1980s, but the model was introduced in the early 1970s, as we wanted to get as close as we could to the technology that Gulliver would’ve been using in ’69, keeping in mind that all of this technology needs to run eight hours a day, seven days a week.

Even though slide projectors are no longer made, there are people who still service and sell them. So using a vendor in Santa Barbara, KX Camera, and then eBay searches—the Conservation department is very good at eBay searches and conditioning old equipment—we got around 22 slide projectors for the piece. And then we had to figure out how to talk to and control them.

Working with a brilliant tinkerer, Ranjit Bhatnagar, and again drawing from how Tokyo Photographic Museum approached their installation, we designed a way for the Arduino computer to talk to the projectors using a series of mechanical relays that interfaced directly with the projectors. All the relays are doing is taking the code and then interpreting it to tell the projector to either turn its light on and off or to advance one position, which results in the dazzling light show you see. The last piece of the puzzle was the screen selection with Paul DiPietro and the Studio crew (Mitch Leitschuh, Omer Leibowitz, and Chris Brown). We had to do a lot of math and worrying to make the best lens decisions for the projectors, which would give us the eight-foot-high image and make sure that everything would even out in the space, which we could only really see once we installed the work.

Paul DiPietro and Gulliver looking at various screen materials for projection, October 2018

Paul DiPietro and Gulliver looking at various screen materials for projection, October 2018

SC: The day that we picked the gels, when Gulliver was here, was a really fun day. And I remember, you did a lot of tests in the projector, and then once we had picked out the selections, we also projected them to scale. For three years, both of us, you earlier than me, were working on this show and this work. And it wasn’t until August that it all came together because there’s a way to which the work is also really about an audience.

For a really long time, it just felt like a screen in a room, like the most beautiful screen you’ve ever seen with the most beautiful projector platform. But the day that not only all the slides got aligned but we set the running speed with Gulliver, and then we got the lighting and the music, the disco ball at the right speed so it transported you without making you too dizzy. It actually...happened. A whole larger than the sum of its parts.

It’s not as if the day Cinematic Illumination opened, it’s the end of the preparation. In some ways, it’s a marker on a much more forward-looking conversation. The rhythm of it is a part of our lives—caring for it, maintaining it, or learning from it. It’s a privilege to work with a living artist halfway across the world who trusts you to bring his work into the world.

Gulliver reviewing screen materials, November 2019

Gulliver reviewing screen materials, November 2019

PO: As a conservator, we try to be as neutral as possible and privilege the voice of the artist and the decisions of the curators, so that we’re not directly involved in saying, “Oh, it should be this or that.” Working with Gulliver I had to get more comfortable with his style. He’s very collaborative and would turn to us and say, “What do you think?” And we’d say, “It doesn’t matter what we think. What do you think?” But then we had to relax and say, “Okay, we’re going to collaborate on this.”

And it’s my job to then document all of those decisions, and document who made those decisions and why so that future generations can see how it all came together.

Shuzo Azuchi Gulliver. Cinematic Illumination. 1968–69

Shuzo Azuchi Gulliver. Cinematic Illumination. 1968–69

SC: And I feel the same way as a curator. Of course, curators make decisions about exhibitions, but here it feels a bit different. Gulliver’s a very special artist to work with, and he would say things like, “The one who makes the work knows the least about it.” Having rigor but not preciousness, and specificity and passion but not nostalgia—I feel like that’s a special cocktail for taking care of these works that have no history in the US.

PO: A lot of works like Cinematic Illumination now live and are really informed by all different institutions, and people, and they are constantly feeding back into the work and just enriching its life and the understanding of the work through processes of research and exhibition. It’s the only way to do it. It’s really just sharing and making sure we can have these conversations, and build this body of knowledge collectively. I’d say media conservation is all about collaboration.

Shuzo Azuchi Gulliver’s Cinematic Illumination, organized by Sophie Cavoulacos, is on view at MoMA through April 18, 2021.