FFWD Previews Laughter in The Dark Room

FFWD Weekly previews Cran's 'Camera Obscura Theater' at One Yellow Rabbit's High Performance Rodeo, January 4-30, 2005.

Laughter in the dark room
Artist Chris Cran plays with perception using The Camera Obscura
Chris Cran and guests
Presented as part of the High Performance Rodeo
Runs January 4 to 30
Centre Court (Epcor Centre)
A voice comes on over the speakers:
"Welcome ladies and gentlemen. No photographs please. Make sure all cell phones and beepers are turned off."
Inside Chris Cran’s camera obscura, it’s cramped and dark. The lights come up and a moving image appears on the screen. The small audience isn’t quite sure what’s happening, but they’re entranced by the image as music plays somewhere behind the invisible screen.
The Camera Obscura, which means "dark room," has fascinated artists and scientists alike for thousands of years. It is still a modern wonder for this audience.
This is the third year for Chris Cran’s The Camera Obscura in One Yellow Rabbit’s High Performance Rodeo, where the well-known Calgary artist invites the audience into his little plywood camera obscura for an optically inverted theatrical treat. Cran and guests perform in front of the lens, creating camera obscura theatre.
The first camera obscura that Cran built was in a studio in The Banff Centre. With only vague notions about what to do, he used an X-Acto knife, tape and black paper to block out the light. He wasn’t really sure what to expect.
"I had done no research for it," says Cran. "I was stumbling dumbly, which is the best way for me to learn, I think. It was three days before it struck me that it was a moving image when someone walked across (the image)."
After that, Cran turned his friend’s bathroom, his parents’ shed and other offices and rooms into cameras obscura. Cran experimented with different lenses and different scenes behind the screen, trying to figure out what worked well.
"I was thinking, ‘How do I fool the viewer into thinking what they’re looking at isn’t upside down?’" Says Cran. "That’s when I started thinking about the upside-down faces we made when we were kids."
Hence, the concept of camera obscura theatre was born.
The camera obscura has been at the centre of controversy in the art world in recent years. It is a popular theory that the painter Vermeer used a camera obscura in his work. David Hockney’s 2001 book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, suggests that it was not only Vermeer who used projections to trace images; Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio and Ingres, among others, are also suspected of using the device as a drawing aid. The question then arises, are their paintings then considered photographs, because of the use of a lens? Are they still respectable paintings, or nothing more than cheats?
"(The Vermeer theory) seems credible to me," says Cran, a painter himself. "Many historians and scientists were upset by this, but artists have always been reluctant to reveal ‘trade secrets’ – how paintings get there, to reveal the source and where it all comes from. Painting is still hard work."
Cran says he enjoys using the camera obscura because it’s such a weird phenomenon and it’s fun to do.
"It changes people’s perceptual notions, and as an artist, I’m primarily interested in perception," he says. "People can stare into a painting – and that’s just a flat surface with some coloured goop on it."
The camera obscura is more than just coloured goop. It’s a visual phenomenon that leaves people questioning what they see.
Cran says the audience goes into The Camera Obscura looking puzzled, but come out smiling – it’s all unexplained and they aren’t sure what they’ve just seen. Although the technology of the device is simple optics, Cran says people are intrigued by it.
"This is way more astounding than new technology," says Cran. "We already know a computer can create a Lord of the Rings, but it’s a surprise when you can decipher back to the technology of such a simple phenomenon such as the camera obscura."
Chris Cran and The Camera Obscura will be at the Centre Court beside the Big Secret Theatre throughout the Rodeo. For more information, check out www.oyr.org.