thinking about David Abram film – Becoming Animal

“It’s weird, you know, the way so many people accept the notion that stone is inanimate, that rock doesn’t move. I mean, really, this here cliff moves me every time that I see it.”
― David Abram, Becoming Animal

The issue of [a film] being a record of human existence is very powerful, our need to use tech to document human behaviour, as we do so when we document the world around us. The only painful thing, as an artist/filmmaker,  is it is pointless, because once humans become extinct, there will be no means for other species to access our existence through those technologies.” 

That last line is, I feel, key to the issue: “once humans become extinct, there will be no means for other species to access our existence through those technologies.”

What does this mean to me, to humanity, to the process of being an artist, a film-maker, a writer, a recorder. Have we become little more than  recorders of our own demise? 

Why do we document our lives?  With social media abounding many of us do that daily, others write, draw, make films, make objects. If ALL human beings cease to exist, will any of that matter?

Abram talks eloquently about the arrival of language and the word. How that major change in perception, that ability to verbalise, to describe, to record, overpowered our sensory bodies. To some degree, one might say that our bodies have become little more than sensors in the service of production of useless artefacts. 

And whilst we avidly document, photograph, capture what the natural world consists of, we have lost our ability to be part of nature, no longer on equal terms. We act as if it is there to serve us. But to what end?  And, should it be that humans disappear from the face of the planet, yet other species survive, what will our recording efforts mean to them?

nothing

As I write this, I recall an essay I wrote years ago, Virtual Lobotomy, which is on Medium and still resonates with this thinking. Essentially, my studio had been burgled and I reflected on whether digital content existed or not, and questioned what, exactly, had I lost?

“When I lost my digital files, the concept of memory returned to its original meaning. Much of the lost work remains only in my memory, as opposed to the computer’s memory, with no material evidence of its prior existence.”

Implications for my studio practice

I have made copious notes while watching the film. Oddly for me, they are handwritten in a paper book. Whilst for many that is their usual way of notetaking, it is not mine. Primarily because my handwriting is terrible. I once made a film about it, with subtitles and voiceover (in Georgian), which was part of the double bind of bad handwriting needing deciphering.

What fascinates me about Becoming Animal is that it has a meta-narrative. It is a film about documentary film-making. About how the film crew capture, edit, and represent what they want the viewer to see. A rich palimpsest  of construct upon construct.

The filming method raises awareness of the lens based visuals, the conceit of exploring the natural world through a lens, editing that, then sharing it as film footage. The collaged layers, the juxtaposition of human and animal, the visual parallels exposed. The film-makers process, their presence in the frames, their equipment unhidden from the viewer, as mostly happens in wildlife programmes on TV. The soundtrack also creates a nature/culture experience, the sounds of the animals urinating juxtaposed with a running river. One of the high points of human sensibility of the sublime is when choral human voices rise up and drown out the sounds of the wild. Or when the elk’s groans are drowned out by the noise of cars on the road.

There is a lot of static camera work, a la David Lodge, with creatures (this term is used by me to denote both animals and humans) ambling in and out of frame. But there is also a point where the cameraman talks to the viewer about how his gaze sometimes tracks a bird in the sky. Later on in the film, you hear him say “we must catch that” as he looks up – this time, a plane, not a bird, crosses the mountainous skyline. 

David Abram shares his thoughts to camera too. He is very camera conscious of the fact that we shall be passively observing him, more aware of the camera’s gaze than the wild animals are. We must not forget that those ‘wild’ animals are living within a gated community of a wildlife park, therefore more used to being objectified than Abram is.

I must not forget that when I visit the river, I become part of that place. Moved by it. Touched by it. It may sense my gaze. When I make drawings of it I use earth materials to depict it – charcoal, chalk. When I film it I honour it with light and capture not only the visual but the sound too. The birds wrap around me when I stay still. I become invisible to them.

I dislike being photographed and filmed, yet the artworks I make reveal me more than any lens will ever do.

Here are some experimental films I have been making, in response to this thinking

 

 

 

Both sides of the Severn – prints on show at Slimbridge Wildfowl & Wetland Trust

Ever since I did the drawings of opposite banks of the Severn I have wanted to do huge drawings on opposite sides of a corridor, positioning the viewer in the centre of the river.

So far, this is the nearest I have got to that. Today I hung framed prints of the original huge panoramic drawings (sorry, all sold) on opposite walls. Only a few pairings, but hopefully it works.

I think it works, but would love to hear from you if you see them. I have long been a fan of Slimbridge WWT. About 25 years ago I ran some printmaking courses there. It is a great place to take the family, the birds are of course wonderful! When we took our small children we always took towels and a change of clothes – inevitably they would get wet though intention or accident.

Hope you can get along, they do make rather charming presents for river lovers and dwellers.

capturing a river is one thing….

trying to capture the experience of viewing wildlife on the river is another….

I used to create video installations and have recently started to dabble with film again. Inspired by the wonderful William Kentridge, I decided to try working with animated drawing.

Of course, I returned to the river as my muse. This is my first attmept and I am quite pleased with it. Not perfect, much more to learn, but it does what I set out to do. My next challenge will be using the flash of blue the eye registers when a kingfisher does a fly-by. In truth, we don’t ‘see’ a kingfisher in flight, we notice the movement, the colours, the speed, the pattern of it’s travel and we name it.

The egret, indeed the river, was drawn totally from memory…I love it when the egrets visit. Usually, there are a pair of little egret here near Newnham. Last week I saw a pair of huge white herons fly over my head and I believe they were great egrets. Isn’t life exciting!

 

 

 

 

 

 

And staying with the idea of reflecting, a poem from Arvon course

We were given a task – to select a postcard with an image on and write from within the image. This was my card.

ELLSWORTH KELLY 1963 – WHITE OVER BLACK

I am the shadow underneath

Hosted on black, barely visible

Where white drapes over me, I gain attention

You will notice white more too

When I lurk below it

Even the black cannot deny me

When white reveals me

Without my subtlety

Their boldness would go unnoticed

They would be flat dull and lifeless

I am the space between

I give the illusion of space

I am their breathe

What I realise now is that Kelly has used straight edges, then a curved one on top. 

It is like a body in architecture. 

It is both a cut and a flap. 

It is both 2d and 3d

It has a frame which it overrides

In the same way howard hodgkin painted over his frames

It is about the human condition

The negatives of the camera x rays are similar

Windows for capturing landscape, or people

Fantasy of a new studio, notes made the day I decided to convert my spare room -> studio…….

I shared this at the time, and looking back it was a good start. I have spent hours in there since, bouncing around like that. One day drawing, next day cutting lino, next one making collages. The paper collages become digital, they are printed out and lino printed on top. The reverse occurs, I put a large sheet of black paper up to draw on, then decided to roll out white ink and create blocks of white to draw on.

Then decide to project film on them instead. So I buy some new kit, a video-cam and a projector. The action spreads into the bedroom, because it can be blacked out. The film is projected onto the black sheet, settling on the white patches. I refilm them together.

I am continuing…I think I am getting somewhere interesting….

Here is how it started:

20th July 2019

The fantasy studio:

I will go there every morning with my first cup of tea 

And sit

And think

And imagine

Gaze out the window

Dig into my inner thoughts

Be calm

Focussed

Concentrate

Eventually

I will send my attention to my hand

Quietly lift my pencil

Relish it’s wooden feel with my fingertips

Open my dedicated notebook

And begin to write

Or draw

Or simply mark the paper

With my philosophical thoughts

What will today bring?

How shall I pursue my practice

With daily dedication?

Commitment?

Analogue procedures

Banish technology

Return to the haptic

Be authentic

A real artist

The reality:

I gaze through the window

I grab my ipad and carefully film a one minute section of the activity in my garden

While I hold it steady

I enjoy watching the way the different trees move in the wind

The blackbird that settles below me on the rail

Out of video frame

Damn

Always seem to miss the action!

I self-discipline

Remind myself of analogue activity

I grab a notebook from the shelf

On its cover, it explains what it is

NOTEBOOK

Yes, this is what I must do

I find a pencil

I open this paper NOTEBOOK

And find in the central pages a photo of an empty desk

This seems very poignant to me

I too have an empty desk

And an empty head if truth be told

I carefully release it from the staples

And attach it to the wall

Just behind my empty desk

And take a photo

From my sitting position

I also take a photo of my NOTEBOOK

As evidence

I intend to write in it

On my empty desk

I print both photos out

And lay them on the desk

Very satisfying

I take a photo of them

I am already distracted from analogue

Too late to pretend

I take one more photo and add it to the others

It portrays my NOTEBOOK

Resting on my MacBook

I discard the NOTEBOOK

And enjoy the way I think

No rules

No boundaries

I write this piece and smile

This is me

My reality

My world

Let’s see where it takes me

This is my line:


I shall take it for a walk

Studio notes 30/07/19 selfie-reflection

Today something exciting happened. I was doing some exercises, lying on my back, both arms raised  above me. The morning light, the white ceiling behind, a light suntan, revealed how wrinkly my skin has become. I hadn’t noticed. Because my arms were held straight up, there was a noticeable skin sag happening around my hands too, revealing landscapes, like dried river beds, or cracks in the river silt of the Severn. I became mesmerised.

I took several shots of my hands and while I did I reflected on the video work I did for my MA. That was a series of films in an installation,  close-up images of body parts, morphing and squeezing, all viewed through a mirror tunnel, which created a virtual ball of slow moving ambiguous flesh-bodies. Other video clips of my face against a mirror were shown inside a mirror-topped plinth with a peepholes in the centre of the mirror. As the viewer leant over and looked in, they also saw their own face reflected on the surface while they viewed the video inside.

I reflected on the gaze – Martin Jay’s book has always hung in my mind and informed my understanding of how we view, and are viewed. My mind slipped into the traditions of self-portraits, the glum looks, the depth of the stare needed to portray oneself. I went on to consider selfies, the contemporary form of self-portraiture that is the opposite of the artist self-portrait. The selfie is not about self examination, but one of self-display, of performing to camera.

As someone who enjoys using lens-based media – camera, 360 or video, I am very self-aware of my aversion to being photographed myself. As I lay there on my back, wondering at what I could see, and what I could frame, with my mobile phone, I switched it to selfie mode and explored. I brought the lens in close to my face, to remove the portraiture and reveal the surface, the landscape, of my skin. I held it steady and closed my eyes before shooting. I made several, mostly of my face. I was intrigued how foetal they looked. Lying on my back, eyes closed, there was no tension, I was relaxed and playing. As I thought about it I smiled, and caught the smile growing on my face.

I think I have found my new muse. Not a riverscape, but one of my body, of shifts and change, of how we perceive ourselves through self-portraiture and lenses. 

Selfie-reflections

studio notes: Monday 22 July 2019 8.30am

Monday 22 July 2019 8.30am

The room is beginning to feel like a studio

Spent quite a bit of time in here over the weekend, exploring the x-rays and the landscape outside, using the Kodak Box Camera negative as a viewfinder. Tidying up, I found a huge book I bought in Dusseldorf many years ago of work by Katharina Sieverding. I remember being knocked out by her HUGE self portraits. I found some images that helped me to consider the structure of mine. Images that have veils of shade (as per the icy blue grey borders of the xrays), vertical panels (I have started drawing vertical panoramic’s) and inverted areas too. I decided the camera as a framing device is key, so experimented with that first. 

Photo 21-07-2019, 08 38 27Kodak box white A4 21-07-2019, 14 57 30

I continually gaze at the elegant waving of the branches of the enormous Cedar tree outside. The old studio imac was booted up after months of rest, to use photoshop. Layers, tonal changes, shifts and blends, resulting in some images I find satisfying. That capture my thinking. I’m not yet sure whether they are the beginning, or the end, of something. 

I need to consider this black and white habit of mine. I think it is a leftover from printmaking days. When I painted, or made videos, I used to love colour. It has gone. 

Why? Where? 

Not sure what will happen next. Got lots of other paid work to do for a few days, so less time to enjoy my studio. But it feels good. A new desk is wending its way to me (cheapy from 2nd hand place). Bit by bit bedroom furniture will go and studio things arrive. Must get my easel up too. Now THAT is a challenge, as I bought it, and oils, and canvasses about 3 years ago – and not used them. 

Time for some colour?