NORTH ADAMS - The machine is amazing - off in the corner, glowing, whirring, clacking. It's behind the enormous two-way screen in the center of the gallery, showing an endless loop of a gigantic abandoned motor raceway in the Mojave Desert. But the machine is unmissable, shedding light and heat as the film spools and unspools around and through it.
The film projector is a critical part of "The Long Road," the first work you'll see when you walk up to the new exhibit's gallery at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. And its presence highlights all that the medium embraces - light, image, idea, all together in one remarkable thing.
Artist Rosa Barba was on hand earlier this week to oversee the installment of the work, and compared it to other uses of moving images.
"I always say video and film are very far apart," she said. "I feel closer to sculpture and painting than to video."
But film's days are numbered, or are they? Faced with cheaper, easier to use and transport digital technology, it certainly feels as if its best days are behind. But "The Dying of the Light: Film as Medium and Metaphor," which opens Saturday at Mass MoCA, features the work of six artists who would like you to reconsider consigning it into the dustbin of history. The exhibit is both a defense and a celebration. "Many of us are exhausted from grieving over the dismantling of analogue technologies," wrote Tacita Dean, one of the artists on display, in The Guardian in 2011. "Digital is not better than analogue, but different.
What we are asking for is co-existence: that analogue film might be allowed to remain an option for those who want it, and for the ascendency of one not to have to mean the extinguishing of the other."
But with the motion picture industry firmly moved over to digital technology, institutions like MoCA can help, said exhibit curator Susan Cross.
"It's become more and more important for museums and galleries to make a commitment to sharing and preserving film," she said.
Cross lists some of the advantages of film- its depth of color, the texture and grain it inevitably offers and that its fundamental generative material is light and pictures, rather than pixels and bits of data.
And for many of the works, there is a subtle insistence on the materiality of the medium. There are many different screens - regular ones as well as giant two-way screens, along with hanging sheets and blank walls. And there are the projectors, with a presence almost like a part of some kind of performance. That is most obvious in another Barba work in the show, "Stating the Real Sublime" - a projector hanging from the ceiling by a loop of film that it is at the same time playing, projecting a blank white square of light on a nearby wall.
In the past few decades, the emergence of digital video technology has reshaped contemporary arts spaces. The dim lights, hum of digital projectors and clash of sounds from one work or gallery into another are common at museums all over the world. But there is almost something retro about the experience of sitting next to a plain, vintage film projector. It is almost nostalgic.
Cross stressed that acknowledging and displaying the technology itself is part of what many of these artists are doing.
"They are showing you the mechan-ics, but it is still about the magic of film," she said.
In terms of content, the works look at different aspects of film. Lisa Oppenheim's "Yule Log" is a projection of the famous fireplace shown on WPIX television in New York for the holidays. Oppenheim's work loops copies of the iconic image to one another, with each generation showing more and more signs of deterioration until the image ends in nothing but abstract blobs of light. Another work by Oppenheim, "Smoke," features found digital footage of smoke, which is transferred to film, and then to photo paper, and then exposed to light, thus encompassing in a jumbled way the entire ecosystem of recorded images.
Other works in the exhibit more literally meditate on the nature of film and light. Simon Starling's film "Black Drop" is about the interwoven history of film and astronomy. It was filmed in beautifully rich 35-mm film, then transferred to high definition digital video, and centers on how film was used to record the transit of Venus across the sun in the 19th century. It is also the story of how what we can see and record shapes what we know and think, all intercut with images of a film editor going through the painstaking process of assembling the film.
The show is an interesting bookend to a 2005 show at the Williams College Museum of Art, "Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film, 1880-1910," which traced the excitement that greeted the birth of the film age. That show examined how early film was shaped by the world into which it was born, and eventually came to shape that world in profound and unexpected ways.
While "Dying of the Light," might seem to be something of a valediction, Cross notes that the title comes from the famous Dylan Thomas poem, which urges the reader to "rage, rage against the dying of the light."
"We have a lot of power to keep this medium from falling into obsolescence," Cross said.