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This spring we’re undertaking a self-taught, crash-course in video editing. Over the past eight+ weeks, we transformed more than twenty hours of raw footage into a video that we’ll exhibit starting this fall. The exhibition will be relayed among five venues between 2013 and 2015.
The project, Look Only at the Movement, takes FOP/smudge in new directions. As many of you know, smudge projects have tended to be text-intensive (a deck of cards, a field guide, a book etc.). Look Only at the Movement is also backed by tall stacks of research, maps and documents. But this time we’re excited to be using video to turn those stacks into a time-based visual experience.
Mondays are designated video-editing days, and they’ve been like mini-vacations. There’s something enduringly seductive about reliving last September’s days of research travel across parched white salt flats and red rocks of Utah, into Colorado valleys and up New Mexico plateaus—while the Brooklyn winter unfolds outside the studio window.
As with earlier smudge projects, we hope audiences will sense there’s much to learn after viewing the new work. It offers up a journey along routes that nuclear waste shipments move in the United States. These familiar roads and interstates are the stage on which the story of this country’s nuclear waste will play out for the foreseeable future. The U.S. highway system is where materials shuffle, seemingly endlessly, between sites, with no permanent repository for the storage of high-level waste in sight.
It’s unlikely that the finished piece will be shorter than five hours. We draw durational inspiration from one of our heroes of film/video work on the American West—James Benning. Benning’s long, slow-moving films, such as 13 Lakes, are known to test viewers’ patience. But they are celebrated for expanding our capacities of observation and attention—valuable skills when it comes to the wicked problems of nuclear waste. In a September 2007 interview with ArtForum, Benning said: “The artist is someone who pays attention and reports back. A good artist pays close attention and knows how to report back.” With our current project, we hope that, following Benning, we’ll be able to “reinvigorate our perceptual capacities” and “model a more perceptually active sensual awareness of the world.”
In 2013, we’re sensing that it’s not just we (artists) who need to be reporting back, but non-humans of the world as well. In many ways, that’s what Benning’s films amount to. He sets up the camera and leaves the aperture open and undisturbed for remarkably long periods of time. While he and the camera stand still, much happens within and outside of the camera’s view. After ten minutes of “stillness,” we realize nothing is actually still at all. Clouds drift, wind stirs, guns fire in the distance, engines buzz. A lot has gone on all along, that we didn’t notice or have access to at first. We (FOP/smudge) wonder if we might be able to stage such an experience while our camera is in motion, and when we invite someone (something) other than humans to “report back”?
Leviathan, a film recently released by the MIT Sensory Ethnography Lab, documents action aboard a commercial fishing boat. In the filmmakers own words, Leviathan is “shot on a dozen cameras—tossed and tethered, passed from fisherman to filmmaker—it is a cosmic portrait of one of mankind’s oldest endeavors.” Leviathan uses a camera similar to the one we mounted on our car last fall for the production of Look Only at the Movement: tiny, high-resolution, affordable and durable. These cameras are designed for extreme sports enthusiasts. They can accompany you on your next surf or snow-boarding trip, or be sent aloft by kite, submerged in water, suction-cupped to vehicles in blazing heat and freezing temperatures, at speeds exceeding 90mph.
In Leviathan the cameras often move independently of human bodies or intentions. But, curiously, the “perspective” that the edited video offers us as its audience seems beholden to the human world of the boat and its narrow purpose (to catch and slaughter fish). Even as the camera floats amongst the fish, they have no apparent perspective as they are rendered into primarily inert, dead things. They are separated from their vast oceanic realms, cut into pieces, dematerialized into objects of consumption—seemingly without a second thought. The depiction of working within the U.S. commercial fishing industry is portrayed as a job without wonder or curiosity. It appears repetitive, strenuous and exhausting despite its intimate contact with the one place on Earth humans cannot fully know nor inhabit. We found ourselves waiting for the cameras to break free of their human-centric views and somehow acknowledge the continuum of interrelation that exists between human and nonhuman forces and beings. Would there be some way for them to dive into the teeming unknown beyond the confines of the boat and its single-minded purpose. The possibility of such a gesture and alter-perspective seemed hidden in plain sight, yet completely out of reach.
One of our most pleasant surprises this fall occurred during a moment of logging the footage for Look Only at the Movement. In footage of a Colorado highway, we spotted a truck transporting waste. We hadn’t seen the truck the day we passed it, despite doing our best to keep watch hour after hour. As was true throughout the film, at this moment, the camera was our third collaborator, open and recording what we saw—and what we did not. It was a humbling, literal reminder of how much exceeds our human capacities, attentions and abilities—at every moment.
One of our biggest challenges as artists is to galvanize new modes and forms of attention capable of making contact with and engaging nonhuman things whose worlds run concurrently with ours, but that escape us. There is much to learn, and unlearn, when moments of crossing paths and addressing one another occur. FOP/smudge is increasingly interested in inventing practices that invite such meetings, pay close attention as they unfold, and report back.
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