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By: Michaela Nettell
Documenting a twelve-month Research Residency at Culpeper Community Garden
# 23 [25 July 2011]
"Through photographs, the world becomes a series of unrelated, freestanding particles ... The camera makes reality atomic."
- Sonntag, On Photography, 1977
Generating video sequences from my slide photographs – the 'animation' does not create an illusion of movement; it doesn't disguise or conceal the still images that it is composed of. Attention is drawn to the individual units (each photo) that make up the flow and the relationships / differences between them. Somewhere between stillness and movement.
The individual images (particles) are abstractions of my original experience of the garden. Glimpses enlarged, concentrated, expanded. It is not what I see, but what I see affected by optical, mechanical, chemical and digital processes that create complex new images that describe something other, something more.
# 22 [12 July 2011]
A process of acquaintance, which is meticulous, repetitious; which involves examining, capturing, enlarging and re-combining tiny details of a place to establish new relationships with it.
During the projection and re-photographing process my tripod is positioned as close to the projectors as possible and I am behind the apparatus, using a remote control to trigger the shutter. I look for interesting overlays, I use my hands to obstruct or reveal portions of each image and I move towards the projection to see how the light merges with the paint on the wall, but I am distanced from the moment of capture and I don't really discover what the camera has recorded (the level of detail, the textures, the patterns) until I take the photographs into the computer and enlarge them. A yo-yoing of relations: I look closely to take the initial photo, then I step back – the projector and camera stand between me and the image and the process is opened up – then I come back in and look closer again, carefully selecting parts of this new, mechanically constructed image.
In 1946, Maya Deren described the camera as an instrument 'which can function, simultaneously, both in terms of discovery and invention ... the direct contact between camera and reality results in a quality of observation which is quite different from that of the human being.' (Maya Deren: An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film)
She goes on to discuss the beauty and excitement of photographic close-ups of ocean organisms, plant sections etc. taken (discovered) by scientists through microscopic observation.
# 21 [5 July 2011]
"The botanist's magnifying glass is youth recaptured. It gives him back the enlarging gaze of a child. With this glass in his hand, he returns to the garden
où les enfants regardent grand
(where children see enlarged)
Thus the minuscule, a narrow gate, opens up an entire world. The details of a thing can be the sign of a new world which, like all worlds, contains the attributes of greatness. Miniature is one of the refuges of greatness."
- Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
In The General Returns from One Place to Another by Michael Robinson, close-up shots of plants and flowers are mesmerising, seductive and deeply sinister. Rumbling bass and sounds of guns firing work with the repeating (truncated) pans to warn us away.
# 20 [5 April 2011]
Axel Antas: NEW TO NATURE at Rokeby Gallery, London.
Exploring relationships between landscape and technology, nature and artifice »
Chris Welsby on TECHNOLOGY AND LANDSCAPE
"In my single screen films and single channel videos the mechanics of film and video interact with the landscape in such a way that elemental processes — such as changes in light, the rise and fall of the tide or changes in wind direction — are given the space and time to participate in the process of representation. The resulting sequences of images make it possible to envisage a relationship between technology and nature based on principles other than exploitation and domination.
"The gallery installations deal with the transformations which occur when the non-Euclidean space of the landscape is imported into an architectural space based on the rules of geometry and perspective. The dimensions of the gallery, the size and scale of the image, the proportions of the video monitor or projection screen, the positioning of the monitors or screens, are primary considerations, and central to the meaning of the work. The fragmentation of image and sound, which characterises these installations, acknowledges the split between culture and nature but, at the same time, opens up the possibility of a less dualistic reading."
# 19 [27 February 2011]
I presented an 'in progress' version of my slide animation at Last Friday Shorts in Southend last week.
I'd spent some time before the screening expanding my 50-second edit to allow a lingering over what I realised were in many cases exceptionally brief, barely perceptible images. The resulting cut, almost 90 seconds long, is smoother and 'quieter' in many places, with gradual fades between shots - swells and blends that help to counter the flickering stop-start of the animated moments. It is probably still a little fast - on the big screen the shots of thorns were surprisingly agitated, violent almost.
Feedback from the screening was interesting: people commented on the closeness, the intimacy of the imagery (someone even mentioned voyeurism). And the separateness of the viewpoint: against the faraway sounds of children playing and the traffic hum, the viewer seems distanced and solitary. This reminded me of Susan Trangmar's discussion of sociality versus solitude in shared urban spaces and seems an important aspect of the piece.
# 18 [18 February 2011]
The theme of my evening class at the LUX this week was landscape. In her introduction Lucy reminded us that the notion of 'landscape' only really emerged with industrialisation – at the moment when people first felt themselves divorced/separate from nature. This echoes MacDonald's writing in The Garden in the Machine, and makes the 'dialogue' between industry and nature, between garden and city that I have been referring to seem all the more poignant.
We watched films by Brackhage, Bruce Baillie, Margaret Tait and others, artists who have worked in opposition to the mainstream film industry, dealing with landscape not simply as a backdrop, a sweeping panorama that lies 'behind' the action of the film, but as a subject or experience in itself. They use movement, close-up, abstraction and other techniques to get away from the 'polite image' of a framed landscape that is so distinct from the complex, phenomenological experience of being in nature.
I was particularly interested in Bruce Baillie’s use of close-up. We watched reels 41, 43, 46 and 47 of Quick Billy. In the more obscure and disorienting sections, the camera is held close to Baillie’s body as he walks, falteringly, exploring his surroundings. In more considered pans, close-up views of household objects become landscapes of their own, as textural and stratiform as sections of rock. As with Samantha Rebello’s works, domestic objects are rendered unfamiliar, and we are invited to look closely and see the world anew.
In Aerial, Margaret Tait presents a poetic (though non-sentimental) study of her garden. An earthworm follows a dead bird follows fallen blossom in her chain of images. (Glimpses?) In her own words: "air, water (and snow), earth, fire (and smoke), all come into it."
We watched more systematic pieces as well, by Chris Welsby, William Raban and Malcolm LeGrice. The copy of Whitchurch Down that we watched was quite worn – a secondary grid of vertical scratch lines gradually being imposed on the frame...
I went to see a small photography exhibition this afternoon: 'Exploration and Intervention: New Landscape Photography' at George and Jorgen. There were two Peter Ainsworth pieces from his 'Drowned World' series. Not really micro investigations but nevertheless there seemed to be a connection to the close-up films I’ve been thinking about. Sections of urban environments are defamiliarised in images of cobwebbed breeze-blocks or dank canal sides; tide-marks on concrete create fictitious horizon lines and all sense of scale is confused.
# 17 [3 February 2011]
Today bright sunshine. And a trip to the garden, my first this year and since the snow. It is mostly brown bare branches, snapped or broken by the wind, limp leaves, crumpled, dried pods. And cool, damp earth. But occasionally the pink hint of a new bud, a rustle of a bird in the bushes, green grasses.
I took a reel of slide film, this time with the 'glimpses' piece very much in mind. Looking for forms and compositions that might make similar patterns to the vertical colour-bands of the poppy stalks - or stand out like the thorny rose-stems - when projected, overlaid and zoomed in on. It's reassuring to have that process to guide me and I can be more selective with my shots.
# 16 [31 January 2011]
I have begun reading The Garden in the Machine by Scott MacDonald, which explores representations of nature and landscape (often gardens specifically) in American avant-garde film. Many of the individual studies (of Larry Gottheim's Fog Line, Babette Mangolte's The Sky on Location for example) draw attention to the conflict between images of nature/wilderness and the equipment required to capture them: the idea that any photographic depiction is by definition a technological construction.
MacDonald writes of the 'grid' that development has imposed on natural process, which is referenced in Gottheim's films through electricity lines, fences etc. that divide and measure his frame as they divide and measure the landscape he explores.
'Gottheim was quite well aware that the “natural world” was visible at most through the interstices of the layers of technology within which we live.' (p.41)
Grids and divisions have been important ideas in another video study I am developing (Hoad Hill), which uses glass and mirrors to fracture and re-construct images of a hillside in Cumbria.
MacDonald writes of Fog Line: 'the lines within and around this image mitigate against our penetration of the space and draw our attention to the graphic make-up of the frame ... To the extent that we do see and measure the scene before us ... we realize that we are seeing not Nature but photography’s transformation of it.'
Glimpse of the Garden also features in MacDonald's study: Menken's use of close-up, her hand-held camera, her sweeping gestures. The way her film acts as a catalogue of ways 'in which a camera can glimpse'. I am excited to think of my slide-animation piece as dealing with the act of 'glimpsing': that is 'to see or perceive briefly', 'a momentary or partial view'.
# 15 [19 January 2011]
' ... enlargement is not really concerned with simply clarifying what we glimpse 'anyway' but rather brings out wholly new structural formations in matter ... '
- Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
I went to the Wellcome Collection last week to see Aura Satz’s Sound Seam. The work was made during a residency at the UCL Ear Institute and explores aspects of memory, sound and hearing. Recordings made within the inner ear, gramophone needles grating over coronal bone, echoing voices and more combine in an elaborate, multi-layered soundtrack.
For me though, the visuals were more compelling – microscopic photographs of the cochlea created strange, organic spirals; close-ups of gramophones and record grooves made pulsing abstract patterns. The images were textural, suggestive, unexpected. They seemed to be images or perspectives I hadn’t encountered before, which was exciting.
I’ve since discovered some of Samantha Rebello’s short films online, including Outer Castings of a Few Small Creatures, a rich, tactile film of close-ups of natural armours: a snail’s shell, a crab, cracked eggs. Through her camera, Rebello renders these animals/objects strange, unfamiliar, almost new.
# 14 [6 January 2011]
Stills from my new animation sequences.
I’ve found myself zooming into tiny portions of the frames - to exaggerate the soft, grainy texture of the projections and to abstract the imagery as much as possible.
I think of Karl Blossfeldt’s enlargements and a newspaper article on his photobook Urformen der Kunst, which I picked up at a Melanie Jackson show last year:
"Blossfeldt’s photographic images allow exploration in an estranged, though once familiar, landscape: 'We, the observers, wander amid these giant plants like Lilliputions'. The camera routes vision through the machine and so detaches humans from their conscious or habitual modes of seeing. Habit desensitizes us to what is seen. Jolted seeing returns us, as the Russian Formalists insisted, to perception."
The article quotes Walter Benjamin's 'Selected Writings, Volume 2.1'.