Karel Doing explores approaches to filmmaking and the non-human in the age of ecocide.
In Henry David Thoreau’s now classic ecological novel Walden1 listening is an important topic. Thoreau retracts himself from mainstream society and carves out an alternative way of living in the woods, giving himself much time to contemplate. Sounds are meaningful in unexpected ways:
At evening, the distant lowing of some cow in the horizon beyond the woods sounded sweet and melodious, and at first I would mistake it for the voices of certain minstrels by whom I was sometimes serenaded, who might be straying over hill and dale; but soon I was not unpleasantly disappointed when it was prolonged into the cheap and natural music of the cow. I do not mean to be satirical, but to express my appreciation of those youths’ singing, when I state that I perceived clearly that it was akin to the music of the cow, and they were at length one articulation of Nature.2
In this example, nature and culture are in conversation, the writer is the medium who brings us into contact with both. Further examples include the sound of a passing train evoking the scream of a hawk and distant bells sounding like an aeolian lyre played by pine needles. Through such poetic observations Thoreau’s enchanted look at life becomes palpable. While we are reading his text, the constant negotiation between utopian convictions and natural surroundings starts to play out in our own head as well. We are made to listen to the sound of nature in dialogue with the internal soundings produced by the mind.
At present, nature’s sound has changed tune. Whilst in Thoreau’s perception disturbances were produced by human actions – firing guns, driving trains, chopping axes –, today other non-human actors are protruding forward. Think for example about the sounds produced by freak weather events: heatwaves, cold snaps, torrential downpours and superstorms. This is not the same nature, poetically singing its song of beauty. This is nature’s sick and disturbed moaning, shrieking and crying. The pressing question is how to respond to this ever louder rumble. We might try to shout louder and ramp up the music in order to overwhelm the terrifying sounds. An alternative is to pause and listen.
In the Discovery of Slowness3, Sten Nadolny’s fictionalized biography of Arctic explorer John Franklin, the central character of the book discovers how his particular slowness can be an advantage. Through precise and sustained observation he is able to see the gradual changes in weather, landscape, wave patterns in water and the movement of celestial bodies. Franklin understands the timescale of meteorological and cosmological events and even imagines himself turning into a stone, extending his range to geological time. Instead of being cast out as a ‘retard’ the hero embarks on a stellar career as a navigator, taking advantage of his unprecedented ability to foresee changes in the weather. A fellow seaman describes him aptly by commenting that “he never loses time”4, an interesting refutation of the prevalent interpretation of ‘losing time’. Following this alternative reading, when acting quickly, there is an increased chance of mis-interpretation by glazing over the slower processes that affect the planet.
Considering this point of view, taking an instantaneous (photographic) image might not be the best way to reveal slow changes in sky, landscape and climate. Sustained observation seems to be more useful. Painters reveal aspects of landscape that photographers and filmmakers are less likely to notice. Take for example one of Britain’s most celebrated landscape painters, John Constable, who is known for his cloud studies. He approached his subject both through objective study and a variety of subjective methodologies. Literary scholar Mary Jacobus notes that Constable saw clouds as part of a global system, suggesting that his studies represent cloud formations beyond localised phenomena. Moreover, the painter was interested in the philosophy of perception, observing the sky was not merely a purposeful activity, aimed at realistic representation, but also a form of contemplation. Jacobus writes: “Constable’s cloud-studies allow us to see ourselves turned inside out under our own eyes – our interiority revealed in our seeing”5. This suggests that the sky is able to reveal to us more than objective information; both (the fictional) Franklin and (the real) Constable have a sense-ability to perceive such signs.
Recent research regarding clouds and climate change has thrown up the alarming possibility of disappearing clouds. According to climatologists, a further warming of the earth might result in a permanently blue sky6. Although this might sound attractive to people living in temperate climates who seek assured blue skies during their holidays, actuality might quickly change this effect into a curse, a literal ‘overkill’ of sunshine. The permanently cloudless sky would sling insults at us regarding our exploitative and unresponsive manners by means of a deafening blue monochrome.
Besides the changing global weather patterns, landscapes confront us with objects like plastic bottles and nuclear waste. Such trash interferes with the biosphere in increasingly damaging ways. Political theorist and philosopher Jane Bennett recalls how such objects come back to us inadvertently. Debris found on a beach after a storm tells a tangled story that encompasses both natural and cultural elements. These elements are connected in complicated and unpredictable ways: “stuff exhibited its thing-power: it issued a call, even if I did not quite understand what it was saying.”7 Recognizing thing-power might be helpful within this discourse, revealing otherwise inaccessible information that can help us to mitigate the unintended and harmful consequences of our actions.
The Russian painter and presumed constructivist Vladimir Tatlin operated from an analogous departure point when he constructed his famous counter-reliefs. Curator and art historian Margit Rowell confirms this: “Tatlin drew on the peculiarly Russian conceptions of faktura and transrational language to envision an art that would consist of a semantic encoding of pure materials.”8 The Latvian painter and art critic Voldemārs Matvejs, who was an influential figure at the time, had redefined the meaning of faktura. While the traditional meaning of faktura refers to texture (as a result from brushstroke) Matvejs extends this by quoting an old Russian proverb: “the saying is true that when people fall silent, stones will begin to speak”9. He subsequently argues that meaning is not formed by the artist alone, but is brought out through an active process of transformation. The artist is seen as a medium who translates the inherit qualities of materials into form. This implies that materials contain (indexical) stories that potentially can be listened to. By arranging heterogeneous materials to meet, a further dialectical process is set in motion.
Tatlin assembled found materials in his counter-reliefs: objects or parts of objects that were discarded or lost their original function. As such, he did not strictly follow Matvejs interest in a pure, fundamentalist material language. Tatlin widens the concept, in his artworks human and material narratives are joined together in a semantic process. To go back to Margit Rowell: “Tatlin was among the first to understand that an object may be beautiful, functional, and illustrate the social and aesthetic values of a given time and place as well”10. This approach can be seen in the work of many avant-garde artists, for example in the work of Jannis Kounellis, known for his recombinations of unconventional materials and found objects, and in the work of Joseph Beuys, who attributed a multilayered meaning to felt and fat.
Beyond the beautiful and the functional, such ‘thing power’ is especially significant in the here and now, in confrontations with a plastic bottle washed ashore on the beach of an isolated island in the Pacific or a radioactive shovel found in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Within these objects, social and aesthetic values break down and time and place are contingent rather than chosen. To understand such things, multiple forces come into play beyond human volition. The ‘semantics’ of the bottle and the shovel comprises both natural and artificial elements. These are impure objects that tell complicated stories, natural forces and human agency -or disregard- are entangled in surprising ways. This mixture reveals to us how power has shifted back from the social to the natural domain; landscapes are talking back to us.
The measured concepts of time and space,linear perspective and clock time, often dictate the representation of landscape in film. Such a human(istic) centered point of view leaves little space for geological, climatic or material ‘voices’. The remainder of this text is dedicated to a number of remarkable cinematic examples in which landscape is represented in other ways, inviting viewers to look beyond the Cartesian concept of objective perception. I will also briefly discuss my own practice, in particular my phytography technique, which I have discussed more extensively in my article Phytograms: Rebuilding Human-Plant Affiliations11.
When thinking about Franklin and Constable and their more than average attention for meteorological systems, the British filmmaker Chris Welsby comes to mind. Welsby has dedicated his career to an extensive inquiry into the interaction between natural and technological systems; using an anemometer to steer the speed of his camera, wind vanes to control the direction of shooting and weather data to render new pixels on a digital screen. For his film 7 Days (1974)12 Welsby mounted a camera on an equatorial stand, a piece of equipment used by astronomers to track the stars. When the sky was covered by clouds the camera pointed upwards, when the sun came out the camera pointed downwards, filming its own shadow. The result is a sequence of images that is both completely fluid and highly unstable, smoothly following the sun’s path along the sky and simultaneously frenetically alternating between sky and ground. As Welsby puts it: “Natural processes were not simply recorded from the outside, as if by an objective observer, but were made to participate in the scheme of observation itself”.13
In her film Redshift (2001)14 British filmmaker Emily Richardson does something similar in regard of celestial bodies at night. By using long exposures and timelapse animation the movements of the stars across the night sky are revealed. The multicoloured stars seem to rise and fall across the landscape while clouds are born on the horizon before invading the entire frame with a heavy fog. The title of the film again refers to astronomy, suggesting an interpolation of scientific and poetic modes of observation. Human and cosmological timescales collide in these images, evoking a sense of fleeting temporality against a much more contemplative, slow mode of being.
Native American filmmaker Sky Hopinka approaches landscape in his own particular way. One of the aspects that he explores in his growing oeuvre is “the ingrained visual embodiment of the landscape in the language”15. Landscape not only informs language but also recalls language, space is not travelled through linearly but in a meandering motion. By means of this approach the filmmaker shifts our vision and brings forward an alternative way of engaging with reality. No distinction is made between wild and cultivated places, erasing the pervasive duality between an essentialist view of nature and an exceptionalist view of humanity. This is for example made concrete in the film Anti-Objects, or Space Without Path or Boundary (2017)16 in which we see a bridge and a plankhouse embedded in language, light, colour, landscape and time.
A welcome extension of such an approach in a different context appears in the film Après l’Heure Bleue (2019)17 by French filmmaker Manon Riet. We are introduced to two elderly men who expertly mimic bird song. These images are interspersed with shots of scenery which increasingly make us aware of the absence of birds and insects. The film presents us with a timeframe simultaneously informed by a past of abundance and a present marked by extinction. A dying language, the language of another species, is guarded by the men who themselves will only live for a few more years.
The above films are inspiring examples, representing time, space and landscape beyond a measured, objective approach. In my own work I have been trying to tap into a similar conceptual and experiential space by working intensely with plants and photographic materials. Plants contain polyphenols, substances resembling industrially produced developer. By soaking plants in a solution of vitamin-C and soda crystals their phytochemicals are released, making it possible to render detailed traces on photographic emulsion: vegetal auto-portraits. Through precise organisation of the various repetitive structures of leaves and petals it is possible to animate these images, resulting in different rhythms, colours and fluctuations. The subjective ‘voices’ of the plants are materialised and made visible through their chemical signals. I have coined this technique ‘phytography’: the prefix phyto- refers to activities and substances derived from plants18.
In my film The Mulch Spider’s Dream this technique is extensively employed19. I used native, perennial plants from my backyard and immediate surroundings to make a series of direct animations on expired film stock. Not only does the land serve as source and breeding ground for plants, their form, size, chemical and cellular makeup also provide aesthetic ‘input’. Making animations with these tiny and fragile pieces of living material requires a certain attention to the plants’ appearance, reactivity and relative size. By comparing the repetitive internal structure of the leaves and petals to the film frame and laying out the organic material in appropriate patterns, a fluttering, pulsating or quivering movement is achieved in projection.
This meticulous work took place in a little shed, allowing me to shield the filmstrips from wind while also providing shade, necessary for slowing down the process on sunny days. Many spiders surrounded me, building their webs in corners and between objects. Also, tiny spiders crawled out of the gathered organic material, enlivening my workbench in an unexpected way. Each newly animated filmstrip supplied me with additional knowledge: I was learning experientially how plants and film frames could coincide in a meaningful way, spinning my own web alongside my eight-legged companions. The editing process started while drying the finished strips on a rack. This allowed me to look closely at the resulting patterns, select the best results and decide on their ‘order of appearance’. I took the final roll with me on a journey to Canada, where I was invited to share my ideas at Philip Hoffman’s Film Farm. After an intense week of creating, learning, teaching and sharing I was given the opportunity to work at LIFT in Toronto. I used their Oxberry machine to rephotograph my original while altering speed, changing exposure, skipping frames and inserting black frames: enhancing flicker.
Back home I projected the resulting sequence several times, pondering over possible soundtracks, spiders still occupying the nooks and crannies of my all too human habitat. I came across Eleanor Morgan’s evocative Gossamer Days and learned that spiders “have relatively poor eyesight and must use their acoustic-vibratory senses to detect and communicate with the world around them”20. A spider’s frequency range lies between 40 and 600 Hertz, from low hum to the sound of a buzzing insect. When I arrived at the Lumen Crypt Gallery in Bethnal Green to project my still silent film, peculiar low frequencies surrounded me. The heavy walls reverberated with the muffled sounds of passing traffic, while the space itself produced an eerie reverberation. I collected fallen branches from the adjacent park, brought in two bamboo flutes and gathered my tools and materials such as tape and various pieces of metal and wood. I used this collection of objects to create sounds while closely listening to the passing trains and busses. The whole space turned into a musical instrument, corresponding with a spider’s auditory perception.
As argued in the previously mentioned article Phytograms: Rebuilding Human-Plant Affiliations, my practice aims to tap into the realm of biosemiotics, deciphering the transmission of information in the natural world. As such my work attempts to move beyond the classical bio-art dichotomy, dissected expertly by Jens Hauser as a bifurcation between the “animation of the technological ” and “technologization of the animated“21. My aim is not to simulate artificial aliveness nor to synthetically alter living materials but rather to find an interface that functions as a bridge between human expression and the creative solutions offered by nature.
The mentioned artists (including me) insert a willingness to include forms of expanded awareness in their work. Sentient clouds, thinking plants, musical spiders or speaking stones; all of these are evocative narratives that counteract on a purely deterministic understanding of our environment. Such an approach takes us beyond our own bodies and needs, while tapping into our capacity to form bonds with things and creatures around us. In the age of accelerated ecocide it makes sense to listen to all those creatures and objects who have a stake in the future of the planet, whether human or non-human, animal or plant, discarded bottle or radioactive shovel. Here, slowness does not mean a lack of action but rather a precise, humble and meaningful response, acting in regard of those processes that normally escape from our narrow perceptual bandwidth. This practice may take us forward, finding a road from splendid isolation to global awareness.
1 – Henry D. Thoreau, Walden and civil disobedience, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books (1983) .
2 – Ibid., pg 169.
3 – Sten Nadolny, The Discovery of Slowness, Edinburgh: Canongate (2004).
4 – Ibid., pg 85.
5 – Mary Jacobus, “Cloud Studies: The Visible Invisible” in Gramma, Journal of Theory and Criticism, Vol 14 (2006) https://doi.org/10.26262/gramma.v14i0.6522
6 – Tapio Schneider, Colleen M. Kaul & Kyle G. Pressel, “Possible climate transitions from breakup of stratocumulus decks under greenhouse warming” in Nature Geoscience, 12, 163–167 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-019-0310-1
7 – Jane Bennett, Vibrant matter: a political ecology of things, Durham: Duke University Press (2010).
8 – Margit Rowell, “Vladimir Tatlin: Form/Faktura”, October, 7:83 (1978). https://doi.org/10.2307/778388
9 – Maria Gough, “Faktura : The Making of the Russian Avant-Garde”, Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics, 36: 32-59 (1999) https://doi.org/10.1086%2FRESv36n1ms20167475
10 – Rowell, pg 108.
11 – Karel Doing, “Phytograms: Rebuilding Human-Plant Affiliations” in Animation, an Interdisciplinary Journal,Vol 15, Issue 1: 22-36 (2020) https://doi.org/10.1177/1746847720909348
12 – 7 Days, directed by Chris Welsby, London: Lux (1974).
13 – Chris Welsby, “Technology, Nature, Software and Networks: Materializing the Post-Romantic Landscape” in Leonardo, 44 no. 2 (2011): 101-106. https://doi.org/10.1162/LEON_a_00113
14 – Redshift, directed by Emily Richardson, London: Lux (2001).
15 – Almudena Escobar Lopez, “Ethnopoetics of Reality: The Work of Sky Hopinka” in Afterimage: The Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism, Vol. 45, No. 2-3 (2017) https://doi.org/10.1525/aft.2017.45.2-3.27
16 – Anti-Objects, or Space without Path or Boundary, directed by Sky Hopinka, Chicago: Video Data Bank (2017).
17 – Après l’Heure Bleue, directed by Manon Riet, Rennes (2019).
18 – Karel Doing, phytogram.blog (2019).
19 – The Mulch Spider’s Dream, directed by Karel Doing, Cambridge (2018).
20 – Eleanor Morgan, Gossamer Days: Spiders, Humans and Their Threads, London: Strange Attractor Press, p. 111 (2016).
21 – Jens Hauser, “A Contemporary Paragone Staging Aliveness and Moist Media” in Dead or Alive!: Tracing the Animation of Matter in Art and Visual Culture, Gunhild Ravn Borggreen, Maria Fabricius Hansen & Rosanna Maj Kloster Tindbæk (eds.), Aarhus: Aarhus Universitetsforlag, pp. 371-412 (2020).
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