Reel art: This Montreal filmmaker is repurposing celluloid to create film light boards

Richard Kerr's "celluloid weaves" give new life to old film strips — and some of the most striking ones are on display now.

Richard Kerr's "celluloid weaves" are on display now at the TIFF Bell Lightbox

Ascending Leaders 1. 35mm Celluloid Film, Fluorescent Lights, Custom Lightbox. 30x30x6. Richard Kerr. 2016. (Richard Kerr)

Richard Kerr says the idea came to him when he was "just messing around" in the studio one day. "I must have put some film stock on plexiglass and then held it up to the light," he recalls. "And I loved the way it looked when the light streamed through it."

Kerr, a filmmaker and professor in film production at Concordia University in Montreal, said the eureka moment led him to quickly create a number of large "celluloid weaves." They are created when Kerr weaves together pieces of film stock on a light board. From a distance, they look like illuminated stripe-intensive artworks, reminiscent of Paul Klee. But up close you can examine the works frame by frame and see that they once rolled through a projector to provide audiences with a film screening.

A number of Kerr's most striking celluloid weaves are now on display in an exhibit, Richard Kerr: Postindustrial, at the TIFF Bell Lightbox's 4th floor gallery.

Richard Kerr (Richmond Lam)

Kerr created the first celluloid weaves in 1992, when he felt he had exhausted many of the more traditional ways of working with film. "I had made experimental films and had done a feature," he says. "I wanted to explore a more direct and tactile practice. I also liked that the material was cheap and I could fund the creation of the work out of my own pocket. I did not have to rely on funds or grants from an institution or backers. It was my way of steering clear of technology and institutions."

In 2017, many if not most of the people looking at these artworks have never seen a film strip. It's pretty alien and archaic to them.- Richard Kerr

Kerr had been gathering old films and bits and pieces of celluloid for years, and had a lot of material to work with. He made one weave entirely out of strips from Stanley Kubrick's 1980 classic The Shining, lending that weave a particularly horrifying effect. Others include more sexual imagery from risqué films and pornography. "I don't really look for the themes," he explains. "The strips of celluloid give them to me."

When he lived in Regina in the early '90s, he learned that the National Film Board office was going to throw out a huge number of prints — so he hauled away as many as he could. He found abandoned drive-ins and took whatever celluloid he could; some of this he re-edited into experimental films. Now he's using these strips of film to create the weaves, which have proven a hit with private collectors. "People who love films obviously love the weaves," he says.

Space Credits 2. 65mm Celluloid Film, Fluorescent Lights, Custom Lightbox. 30x30x6. Richard Kerr. 2016. (Richard Kerr)

When he was at a screening in Toronto last year, he met a projectionist who had heard of his celluloid weaves. "He wanted one of the weaves so badly that he said he'd give me eight trailers he had collected in return for one. Now enough people have heard of what I'm doing that the celluloid finds me. And people like the idea that it's recycling."

Kerr's celluloid weaves hold a certain poignancy, given that digital technology has almost completely taken over. "This is a way of saving particular film strips," he says. "I realized that as time went on, these works would become more and more exotic. In 2017, many if not most of the people looking at these artworks have never seen a film strip. It's pretty alien and archaic to them."

And Kerr likes the idea of an homage to the way films used to be experienced. "The further I get away from new technology, the happier I am. I'm not a digital person. I don't own a cell phone and I can barely operate a computer. Working with this material and keeping it alive in another form makes me very happy."

Richard Kerr: Postindustrial. To June 2. CIBC Canadian Film Gallery, TIFF Bell Lightbox, Toronto. www.tiff.net

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