Invisible Labour   Spring 2016

Describe the Work

When artwork is put on display for a viewing public, much of the labour that goes into displaying the work is rendered invisible — namely, the work of technicians, projectionists, maintenance workers, security, cleaners, docents, artists’ assistants, &c. Though the labour of these workers is integral to the ways in which the public accesses, experiences, and appreciates work on display, there is no shared practice within the sector ensuring employers acknowledge and credit the work of all labourers.

With the goal of highlighting the significance and complexities of labour that art audiences are not meant to perceive, I asked Kate MacKay and Kandis Friesen to “describe the work” of a projectionist and technician, respectively, working within the media arts sector. Referencing the simple request artists are often asked to answer, the interviews reveal information about the intentions, processes, and contexts of their skilled labour and the artistry that informs their own practices.


Kate MacKay inspecting films at Media City (2015). Image courtesy of Johan Lurf. 

Kate MacKay

The work of a motion picture projection varies greatly according to the venue, the presenting organization, the programming, and the type of event. Because my experience as a projectionist is outside the context of mainstream commercial cinemas, I am familiar with the type of work required when working in festivals, conferences, special experimental screenings and events, and for many years, as the primary projectionist for The Cinematheque Ontario (now TIFF Cinematheque).

The role of the projectionist varies in all these contexts, depending on the size of the organization and the infrastructure for technical support. In some ways, the tasks involved in motion picture projection are relatively simple and repetitive. Yet to do the job well requires attention to and awareness of many details that can make the difference between a screening where the audience is able to focus without distraction on what is being projected, and one that is compromised by inferior sound or image quality or interruptions in the show.

A projectionist is responsible for keeping the projectors well maintained, clean and properly lubricated, and adjusting or changing lamps when needed. Responsibilities also include making sure the sound heads — both optical and digital — are properly calibrated. Before a screening, I will clean and inspect the film path and install the correct lenses and aperture plates. Then I will thread the machines and run a few minutes of the first and second reels of film to focus the lenses and set the appropriate sound level. While adjustments and fine-tuning sometimes need to be done during the projection, these modifications should be as minimal and subtle as possible so as not to distract from the screening.

At Cinematheque Ontario, I projected two different film programs almost everyday. Most were 35mm feature films but there were also many compilation programs comprised of 16mm prints, 35mm prints, and occasionally videotapes. Many of the prints I handled were rare and/or archival prints, but I was also showing new prints that had been restored or preserved. Films arrived on shipping reels or spooled onto plastic cores in cans. One reel or core holds up to about 2,000 feet of film, or about twenty minutes worth, so a feature film would arrive on anywhere from four to eight or more reels depending on the length of the film, or if the film was shipped on smaller 1,000-foot reels. On arrival, I would unpack and log the number of reels or cores, the shipping container they arrived in, and the condition in which they arrived. Then each reel was inspected over a light table while the film was wound onto sturdy and smooth aluminum house reels for projection. In the course of this process I would check for any splits, creases, crimps, tears, broken or damaged sprocket holes; badly made, decayed, sticky, or hinging splices; and anything else that might interfere with the film running smoothly through the projector. At this point any necessary repairs or adjustments were made and logged. While checking the physical condition of the film I would also look for signs of fading or discoloration, scratches, scuffs, or other wear or damage in the picture area as well as the soundtrack of the film. As I was winding I would also confirm the correct aspect ratio and sound format, check for subtitles, and double-check the countdown leaders to ensure that they were properly attached to the correct reel and the reels were accurately numbered. I would also locate the cue marks that signal the reel is ending, and note the details of their appearance and location on the film’s frames. These visual cues allow the projectionist to make a smooth transition from one reel to the next as they go back and forth between the two 35mm projectors. Clear and accurate notes were especially important, as I would often inspect prints a few days before I projected the film, and would sometimes prepare prints for a colleague to screen. 

For occasional events and smaller festivals, my work begins with a consultation to determine technical requirements for the proposed screenings. This discussion includes the organization’s director(s)/programmer(s), equipment supplier, and/or onsite technical staff. I begin these meetings by requesting a list of formats or gauges that need to be supported. In my experience, smaller festivals ask to project with whatever formats are easiest to acquire, typically resulting in showing a mix of various different digital files, DVD, and BluRay discs. Generally, more established festivals ensure optimal presentations by providing DCPs (Digital Cinema Packages), the new industry standard for theatrical motion pictures. In this context, the challenge for me is to manage the volume of material and ensure that there is server space for the content to be loaded and shown.

In addition to ensuring optimal image and sound quality, I ensure that transitions from one work to another flow smoothly when required. I do this by testing the actual content to be shown and rehearsing transitions before screenings. While I can inspect 16mm or 35mm film without projecting the films, discs and files require me to watch them all the way through to confirm that all films are complete and play correctly. I watch these films on a monitor before a screening and repeat this process onsite to make sure that the discs and files are compatible with the equipment available at the screening venue.

The films, videos, and digital works I view in a variety of contexts continue to inspire me. The challenges of different formats and working with both new and old technologies mean that I am constantly learning, day by day, frame by frame, pixel by pixel.



Kandis FriesenKandis Friesen, Maintenance Shift (2013). Production still. Image courtesy of the artist.

My work as a technicianThe definition of a technician is contextual, not necessarily fixed, and often covers a wide range of work. An audiovisual technician typically installs equipment related to the artwork in a media arts context, though media art is not always audiovisual. An art handler/preparator is tasked with installing the work deemed the art object(s). Though both of these jobs require specialized knowledge, often one person does both, especially when working for smaller arts organizations. can be described as cultural, administrative, technical, manual, and maintenance labour, demanding specialized skills, knowledge, and tools in order to install media artworks and installations. The workflow — a rhythm that follows or prescribes the sequence of necessary steps — requires flexibility and an understanding of how the artwork is made, installed, displayed, accessed, maintained, transported, and stored. The gestures involved in this labour often alternate between intuitive and highly-choreographed movements, with one’s body learning how to hold, carry, and install the work’s components as needed, balancing digital, analog, physical, ephemeral, moving, still, bright, dark, loud, and silent parts.

My work is methodical, often requiring advance planning, research, and discussion. It is both collaborative and individual in nature, requiring a negotiation of knowledge and needs from different perspectives. I must understand the goals and desires of the artist(s), curator(s), and others involved, and respond to the architecture and context of the installation. I am required to understand the constraints of the physical space, the electrical power, the weight of materials and equipment, budgetary constraints, the way sound travels, and how light bleeds. My work demands relationships with other tradespeople, equipment rental companies, and material suppliers. For my work I must understand safety protocols in the form of building and fire codes, equipment safety, workers safety, and safety of both the artwork and the public. My work demands knowledge of codecs, compression, software, players, projectors, monitors, amplifiers, speakers, mixers, and cables. My work requires the use of J-bars, ladders, drills, dollies, trucks, and lifts. My work demands that I ask how a temporary installation site will affect an artwork: how sound may be changed or mix with other sounds, images faded by incoming light, distractions caused by equipment, or audiences affected by other artworks in the space.

Essentially, my work requires me to consider what is generally not considered, and/or make these considerations disappear. My work is concerned with a signal as it travels through a system. When the system is connected and running smoothly, the artist’s work is accessible to its audience, and when it breaks down, the artwork is disrupted. It is my job to problem-solve, reinstall the system, and locate and fix disruptions when they inevitably arise. Some work is mentally boring or physically uncomfortable, such as testing equipment, running cable along walls, climbing up and down ladders, and assembling screens, plinths or supports. Some work is simply looking, listening, and waiting. Some work is in front of a computer, exporting files, asking for repair quotes, sourcing equipment, working in a spreadsheet, or rendering a video file. Some work is testing inputs and outputs, turning things on and off, drawing signal path designs, checking sources, or simply learning the idiosyncrasies of a specific device that, for no apparent reason, works the way it does. The work can be frustrating, tiring, dirty, satisfying, fun, loose, meticulous, and slightly dangerous. There are details that do not always get finished, and are instead tucked away with the right colour of tape or just behind the line of sight so that the mechanisms of display are clean and tidy and out of the listeners’ or viewers’ focus.

My work is frequently concerned with the relationship between the technical and conceptual. Technical input can be crucial in choosing the form and placement of a work, and is often present through all stages of production, curation, and exhibition planning, regardless of scale. When technical needs have not been considered in concert with other elements, challenges and disruptions affect the installation process, budget, context, and content of the work.

My work demands that I find out the information that I need to know but don’t. This often means that I draw on a community of technicians that have knowledge in different areas. I contribute to this sense of community by being generous with my knowledge, asking others to be generous with me, and by offering access to this knowledge in various ways, such as by developing and teaching workshops, mentoring, and sharing my resources. I locate my approach to this work within feminist frameworks of skill-sharing and artistic mutual aid while also understanding the context of a job field that is competitive, precarious, and protective of its knowledge.

As with many kinds of technical work, my work is quite gendered, and my knowledge and decisions are often questioned in ways that those of my male colleagues are not, thus relating to larger systems of power that define value, status, and worth. From the subtle to the extremely overt, these apprehensions and aggressions are built into how technical knowledge is understood, asserted, and enacted. This can affect collective working conditions through things like pay rates, safety, and quality of work, and has the potential of affecting how the artwork is installed. Though not my daily experience, these imbalances are constantly present. Power, of course, does not escape what could appear as neutral technical work.

Attuned to various methods of display, my curiosities include theatrical spotlights and warehouse fluorescence; insurance policies and conservation techniques; security cameras and security labour; architecture, ceiling height, and the materials and thickness of walls; painting, patching, plinths, and supports; how sound travels, which sounds are allowed, and why silence is often enforced; which seams are hidden and why; what the word clean means; the initial extraction, use, and subsequent disposal of materials, including metal, plastic, plaster, adhesives, paper, and wood; and the concept of public space. My work as a technician has also led me to think deeply about the assertion of value, status, and worth.