When Steve Carr opened his project Chasing the Light at Christchurch Art Gallery in 2018, Gallery staff may have felt a bit like Stanley Moon. In the 1967 film Bedazzled, Moon (Dudley Moore) sells his soul for seven wishes, only to find his desires continually frustrated by the Devil (Peter Cook), who delivers what was agreed to to the letter, but always with a twist that spoils it for Moon.
Carr relocated from Auckland to Christchurch in 2016 to take up the position of Senior Lecturer in Film at Ilam School of Fine Arts. Known for his crowd-pleasing video works, Carr was swiftly offered a major commission. Christchurch Art Gallery signed up to his elevator pitch: to video a fireworks display using drones and present the results as a multiscreen installation. The idea seemed to have ‘spectacle’, ‘eye candy’, and ‘extravaganza’ written all over it. Or did it?
When the show opened, the Gallery’s intro text promised ‘a spectacular and immersive new project … placing the viewer in the middle of a beautiful and bewildering night-time adventure … The viewer is immersed in an impossible boundless space.’ But Chasing the Light defied crowd-pleaser expectations. It was chilly, disorienting, and confusing. Carr’s deconstructed expanded-cinema work was an installation, yes, but was in no way immersive, keeping viewers on their toes and at arm’s length emotionally.
I can’t blame the Gallery for mischaracterising the work—they hadn’t seen it. Shooting had been delayed. Carr not only had to coordinate a team of six drone-cameramen, he had to wait for the right weather—a clear sky and enough wind, but not too much. In the end, the shoot happened less than a fortnight before the show opened, leaving Carr one chance to nail it. The wall text was written sight unseen.1
I love Chasing the Light—we’ve just shown it at City Gallery Wellington—but entertaining it isn’t. It’s the opposite. Its virtue lies in wrongfooting its audience, and in draining drama, spectacle, and pleasure from a quintessentially dramatic, spectacular, orgasmic subject. It cues entertainment expectations only to frustrate them, pulling the rug.
In the Gallery, the six unedited takes—shot from different altitudes and angles, like a sports event—are projected in sync; each drone feed presented on its own dedicated freestanding screen. With their rusty armatures, the screens look like scaled-down drive-in-movie screens, which you’d more likely find outside—and in America. They’re scattered through the space, so you can’t see them all at once—there’s no ideal viewing position. Carr backlights the screens, making them stand out sculpturally, preventing viewers from simply immersing themselves in the projected action. Throughout the Gallery, backs of screens are visible.
More importantly, as the drones don’t record sound and Carr didn’t want the contrivance of adding it, the work is silent. There’s no soundtrack to link what is happening on the separate screens. It’s weird to see explosions without hearing them. There’s no bang for your buck.
Carr’s drive-in screens cue us to think of the movies. The movies are virtual travel, transporting stationary viewers to elsewheres and elsewhens via camera movements and editing, among other things. But Carr’s work is made not for stationary viewers but for ambulant ones, traversing the space, ‘chasing the light’. Viewers aren’t locked in, in front of a screen, like a standard cinema goer in their theatre seat or parked in their car in a drive-in. Instead, they became like live-action video editors at their consoles, grazing on multiple feeds, editing them together not with the flick of a switch but by moving their bodies and attention from one screen to another.
It’s hard to find the perfect view—there is none. The drones are erratic. A particular drone might capture one explosion beautifully but completely miss the next. Constantly distracted by the prospect of a better view appearing on another screen, viewers move through the space, themselves like drones on the look out. Curator Lara Strongman observed that viewers become aware of the position of their own bodies.2 This is the opposite of immersion, where you forget your self and become engulfed in the image—which is usually what happens when we park our bodies in a cinema seat and look at a single screen.
The whole piece is seventeen-minutes long, and loops, but viewers seldom watch the whole thing, leaving before the show is over, with more to come but nothing new to see. Indeed, even if they wait, it would be hard to know when the sequence repeats.
Chasing the Light is disorienting in many ways. It’s an outdoor fireworks show brought inside, but shown on outdoor screens. It’s impossible to calculate the drones’ position in relation to the action and to one another, because the explosions appears against a black sky with no external reference points for scale, angle, or perspective. It’s hard to tell if the drones are hovering or moving, especially as the exploding fireworks are themselves moving.3 The action is spatialised, but the orientation of the screens has nothing to do with the positions of the drones in relation to the fireworks; while drones share a common target, the screens point away, in apparently arbitrary directions.
Chasing the Light was made possible by the sudden availability of cheap drone technology, which is enabling small-budget filmmakers and art students to incorporate dramatic aerial shots—once the exclusive purview of big-budget film directors with helicopters—into their work. On YouTube, you can find endless drone-fireworks clips similar in feel. Now overused, drones are becoming as much of a film cliché as fireworks, but that’s part of the attraction for Carr, who perversely revels in tropes, memes, archetypes. Even something as intrinsically dramatic and spontaneous as fireworks can begin to feel like stock footage.
Carr loves clichés. His videos have catalogued familiar fantasies, often ones with a sexy tinge. He enjoyed pillow fighting with young girls and smashing up a panel van with lads; he wore scuba gear to perve on swimming bikini girls; and he had a woman soulfully smoke a full packet of cigarettes in one sitting. Other videos explored orgasmic motifs: bursting paint-filled balloons, forbidden fruit shredded by bullets, a watermelon exploding under rubber-band pressure, a burnout. Chasing the Light fits in, playing on fireworks as a cinematic euphemism for orgasmic sex.
Alfred Hitchcock famously used this idea as a joke at the expense of Hays Code prudery in To Catch a Thief (1955).4 He intercut Cary Grant and Grace Kelly’s petting with the fireworks exploding outside to show what couldn’t be shown—sex—simultaneously concealing and exaggerating it. But in Carr’s work, there’s no cutaway—it’s just fireworks, fireworks, more fireworks, linked to nothing. It isn’t sexy. The fireworks explode incessantly, unrelenting, in an endless money shot, which, precisely because it’s endless, can’t function as a money shot, instead feeling exhausted and exhausting formally and symbolically.
In combining drones and explosions, Chasing the Light is haunted by military associations. The Christchurch Art Gallery intro compared the work to ‘a barrage of artillery’. In representations, celebratory pyrotechnic displays often recall deadly exploding ordnances—and vice versa. Of course, Chasing the Light also recalls the military use of drones, where pilots trained on silent video screens strike surgically, terminating with extreme prejudice yet distanced from their deeds, which they see but never hear.5 Carr’s work’s affect is similarly flat—psychotic. I’m reminded of the closing scene in Brian De Palma’s political thriller Blow Out (1981)—a homage to Hitchcock. After Jack (John Travolta) discovers his love interest Sally (Nancy Allen) strangled, dead, mismatched Liberty Day parade fireworks go off, signifying the orgasmic happy ending that isn’t. La petite mort.
Anthony Byrt has called Carr a trickster.6 Chasing the Light is confusing, irritating. It’s an exercise in bathos—it leaves us cold. In not delivering what we expect or want, it makes us painfully aware of what we’re missing. But is this Carr’s failure or the ultimate trick—a trick on us? Others will disagree, but I say it’s the trick, because every twist Carr has added thwarted the expectations he fostered from day one with his elevator pitch. Chasing the Light is anticlimax consummately delivered.
We can usually count on Carr for a fun time, but, in Chasing the Light, he goes against type. Perhaps he’s like one of those rebellious comedians who, in seeking to become a serious actor, alienates his fan base—who ‘love his movies, especially the earlier funny ones’.7
The devil is in the detail. Get used to disappointment.
That said, when Chasing the Light was shown as part of White Night Reimagined at National Gallery of Victoria in 2019, the boosterism persisted, with the Melbourne Gallery describing the work as an ‘enveloping and a sublime exploration of an explosive display’, ‘an engaging and memorable experience’. https://whitenight.com.au/melbourne/program/steve-carr-chasing-the-light/.
Lara Strongman, ‘Everyone to Altitude: Making Chasing the Light’, Christchurch Art Gallery Bulletin, no. 194, 2018–9,
It doesn’t help that fireworks are intrinsically symmetrical, exploding outwards, looking similar from all angles.
It was later exploited in the title sequence for the TV show Love, American Style (1969–74) and satirised in The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (1991).
Although drone pilots do suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. www.nytimes.com/2013/02/23/us/drone-pilots-found-to-get-stress-disorders-much-as-those-in-combat-do.html.
‘Fool’s Gold: The Recent Films of Steve Carr’, Art New Zealand, no. 150, Winter 2014, 84–7.
Apologies to Woody Allen, Stardust Memories (1980).