Unreal Nature

December 31, 2015

From Inside Their Experience

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:56 am

… from inside their experience as we feel rocked to and fro …

This is from American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary by Scott MacDonald (2013):

… If, at first, intelligent people could imagine that, when representing Other cultures, a picture is worth a thousand words, it was not long before those with a serious interest in anthropology and ethnographic filmmaking saw that, whereas written ethnography generally condensed months or years of study into a more or less accessible verbal form, whatever film imagery of preindustrial cultures was recorded and then edited into “complete” films — men and women finding their way not merely into anthropology, but filmmaking — was little to be trusted.

[line break added] If even a written text compiled on the basis of long periods of research was limited in what it could reveal about Others, film, often recorded on the fly and/or quickly dramatized, tended to be not just limited, but superficial and prone to obvious distortions. This problem was quickly evident in the films of Lorna and John Marshall, Robert Gardner, and Timothy Asch, even to the filmmakers themselves: John Marshall was increasingly embarrassed by The Hunters, Bitter Melons, and his other early films about San peoples, and Asch’s The Ax Fight directly addresses dimensions of this issue.

The problem, of course, was that from the beginning too much was expected of cinema. The fact that film could combine image, sound, and even visual and spoken text suggested to some that film could tell us more about the world than could just the written word or the written word plus still photography. A generation of filmmaking and anthropological critique was necessary before it became clear that what cinema can do is reveal something different from what gets revealed in even the most intelligent and engaging prose.

[line break added] A written text on a culture or cultural practice can tell us what the writer has come to understand about that group or activity, can even help us imagine what it might be like to be in a certain place and live a certain way, but a carefully made film can offer its audience a sensory experience that reflects and reflects on the actual experiences of others (including the filmmakers themselves) as they occurred in a specific place during a specific time.

MacDonald discusses several examples; I’m giving just snippets from one such:

… In Leviathan, as in most of the films to come out of the Sensory Ethnography Lab, sound comes before image and has sensory impact at least as powerful and complex as the imagery. In this case, the near-deafening noise of the fishing boat and of the processing of the fish and shellfish creates an aural “nest” within which human speech can rarely be made out.

… Throughout Leviathan we are experiencing not only the labor of the fishermen, but the labor of the filmmakers themselves, from inside their experience as we feel rocked to and fro, continually astonished that the theatrical experience of the documentary cinema, even after more than a century, can still powerfully reinvigorate our awareness of the sensory world.


[ … ]

… even if we were to agree that Marshall, Gardner, and Asch often didn’t “get it right” in anthropological terms, that they sometimes substituted their own romantic assumptions for what now seems reality, there seems little question that their initial motivations, at least those they were conscious of, were decent and humane, and that their willingness to devote themselves to observing and recording ways of life distant from their own, even if this meant putting themselves in harm’s way, and to make these ways of life familiar to others, is evidence of a deep commitment both to a broader understanding of human experience and to an expanded vision of what is possible for cinema.

[line break added] Further, their very failures to recognize that their envisioning of others was largely a projection of themselves allows their films to function for us in a new way — as emblems not of the Truth of other cultures, but of the complex realities of limited, fallible human beings working to understand each other. If ethnographic film has often been more about the filmmakers than their subjects, then ethnographic film becomes, if not another form of personal documentary, at least another form of personal expression. And the experiences of these films, like the experiences of any other form of personal expression, can continue to be fascinating and valuable — just in different ways within a new context.

The Sensory Ethnography Lab and the films coming out of it have built on the experiences of an earlier generation. Do the SEL filmmakers “get it right”? Inevitably, as time passes, we will learn more about the realities surrounding the experiences they document, realities that may, probably will, throw the apparent assumptions and implicit conclusions of their films into question. But this is inevitable for anyone searching for Truth or even just truth. The alternative, to not care about reality, is hardly to be preferred, and in any case, modern film history is deluged with big-budget fictional fantasies … feeding viewers the most obvious and dangerous clichés about “us” and “them.”

My previous post from MacDonald’s book is here.




December 30, 2015

A Clear Spring Rises

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:47 am

This is from the ‘Introduction’ by Eudora Welty to The Democratic Forest by William Eggleston (2015):

… Time in The Democratic Forest is the galvanic present, but … the past, in its flickering and shadowings, is also integral to this book. (I take it as the viewer’s standing privilege of turning back to the book’s beginning if the need is felt to re-visit it for freshly discovered reasons.) In the home place — any home place in the world — the long view is the one like memory’s view: it shows us everything at once.

… A clear spring rises somewhere on the home place, for the human strain begins there for Mr. Eggleston, and we see in it what follows: it turns into a river that runs through, or underneath every place succeeding it. Whatever is done to block it or to stop its flow, it surfaces again.




December 29, 2015

A Spoon and the Broken Handle of His Chamber Pot

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:02 am

… the constraints imposed by the rules … force the inventive faculty to outdo itself …

Continuing through Art Brut by Michel Thévoz (1995):

… Born in 1901 in a village in the Lozère department of southeastern France, Clément was one of fourteen children. The whole of his boyhood and youth was spent working on his parents’ farm. He had no schooling and never learned to read or write. Always fighting and quarrelling with his brothers, he tried to set fire to the house in 1925 with a bundle of banknotes representing the family savings.

[line break added] After that he was interned in an asylum. Used to freedom and an open-air life, he found detention unendurable and reacted violently, making twelve attempts to escape. This only made his lot worse: he was put into solitary confinement in a narrow cell which he scarcely left at all for two years.

After six months of solitude, Clément conceived the idea of carving the paneled wall of his cell, using the only tools he had: a spoon and the broken handle of his chamber pot which he whetted on a stone. When these makeshift tools were taken from him, he contrived to make others.


… His work is that of a prisoner, a man under duress, cut off from the world in spite of himself and compelled to live for two years in a state of unendurable solitude. For him, the act of carving was an act of aggression, a release of pent-up forces. The bursts of rage flash out in the repetition of motifs, a stubborn rage gradually controlled and in the end inventive.

[line break added] These long processions of figures have their underlying source, not in Byzantine decorations or Romanesque reliefs, but in what Freud called the “repetition compulsion,” the emotional pressure of a traumatic situation which drives an individual to repeat a gesture or figure obsessively, to help him dominate that situation little by little.

[line break added] Clément reiterates the wheel design to mark the passing hours of the day, to exorcise the unendurable continuity of space and time. The check patterns repeat on the scale of the individual panel the overall structure of the wall paneling, which closes off the prisoner’s world. In a sense Clément reproduces the patterns of his fate, to give himself the illusion of acting upon it and gaining the initiative.


Once this figurative rhythm is worked out, he is free to make play with it, to deflect, reverse or syncopate it. The order imposed, the inexorable rhythm of the days, the obsessive patterning of the wall panels, all curiously combine to become the props and prompters of an unimpeded inventiveness. The repetition of figures functions like the constraints imposed by the rules of prosody, which are only apparent constraints, since they force the inventive faculty to outdo itself and come up with the most unexpected finds.

[line break added] Here perhaps is an essential paradox behind the work of any creative artist, who cannot set his course except on the basis of a given order. Thus the writer depends in the last resort on the inviolable system represented by the letters of the alphabet and the musician on the notes of the scale.

[line break added] André Gide likened these constraints to the cord which seems to hold back the kite but without which it would never get off the ground. In inventing his own combinatory system, Clément brought the art of carving back to zero point and started afresh on his own resources, without the benefit of any cultural influence.

portrait of Clément by unknown photographer

My most recent previous post from Thévoz’s book is here.




December 28, 2015


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:39 am

… the dreams of retail produce monsters, … the obscene fecundity of commercial image production, can serve as a giant gene pool …

Continuing through High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture by Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik (1990):

… The mutual infatuation between modern art and advertising chilled quickly after 1930. The Great Depression brought capitalism under fire, and the rise of the dictators threw a different light on methods of mass persuasion.

… American advertisers who had used modern design inflections to entice prosperous consumers now felt impelled to make a harder sell to a broader audience with less money to spend.

… The visible result was not clear information aimed at a reasoning audience, but a hard-sell look, devoid of subtlety, that the advertisers called “buck-eye” style; tailored for an audience presumed dumb.

… [However, in art] two remarkable instances of engagement with the material of advertising, on opposite sides of the Atlantic, kept alive in the domain of private fantasy what had been and would be again, one of modern art’s primary linkages to the broad public forces at work in the society around it.

… [Joan Miró] wanted to find out what the unconscious looked like — the grail quest of all the Surrealists — and he intuited that the way in led through the hardware department.

Joan Miró, Collage (study for Painting 1933), 1933

Miró understood that nothing may be so limiting, and so prone to merely reproducing itself in standardized form, as fantasy with no flint to strike against — and that the realization of what is uniquely personal, or original, may emerge from dialogue with what is external and not under one’s control. Opening up to seemingly petty irritations, choosing to devote an extra measure of attention precisely to dime-a-dozen things others regard as useless or merely functional, can sometimes be the crucial step in making powerfully original art.

[line break added] More specifically, though, his remarkable experiment belies the familiar notion that the world of commercial reproduction is hostile territory for the artistic imagination. Miró saw that the dreams of retail produce monsters, that the obscene fecundity of commercial image production, can serve as a giant gene pool in which, if one keeps an attentive enough eye, bizarre prototypes of potential new life forms are constantly, carelessly spawned.

Joan Miró, Painting 1933

… for a man on Utopia Parkway in Queens, New York, advertisements were tickets into a social, cosmopolitan world he would otherwise never know. Joseph Cornell’s boxes collapse one of advertising’s standard distinctions, for in them notices that are straightforward informational prose are also fetishes of longing and dream association.

by Joseph Cornell

… Newspapers, notices, and wrappers that for Picasso and Braque were chips in the game of urban life become the tarot of a stately solitaire in Cornell.

… by then drenched in nostalgia,souvenirs of a world Cornell had never known: the daybook of the flâneur become the historical romance of the shut-in.

My most recent previous post from this book is here.




December 27, 2015

Only from this Point

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:42 am

… in that sea which is what the work will be, having become an ocean on its own scale.

This is from the essay ‘Song of the Sirens’ in The Gaze of Orpheus and other essays by Maurice Blanchot, translated by Lydia Davis (1981):

… It is no small thing to make a game of human time and out of that game to create a free occupation, one stripped of all immediate interest and usefulness, essentially superficial and yet in its surface movement capable of absorbing all being.

… The tale is not the narration of an event, but that event itself, the approach to that event, the place where that event is made to happen — an event which is yet to come and through whose power of attraction the tale can hope to come into being, too.

This is s very delicate relationship, undoubtedly a kind of extravagance, but it is the secret law of the tale. The tale is a movement towards a point, a point which is not only unknown, obscure, foreign, but such that apart from this movement it does not seem to have any sort of real prior existence, and yet it is so imperious that the tale derives its power of attraction only from this point, so that it cannot even “begin” before reaching it — and yet only the tale and the unpredictable movement of the tale create the space where the point becomes real, powerful, and alluring.

… Of course it is true that only in Melville’s book does Ahab meet Moby Dick; yet it is also true that only this encounter allows Melville to write the book, it is such an imposing encounter, so enormous, so special that it goes beyond all the levels on which it takes place, all the moments in time where we attempt to situate it, and seems to be happening long before the book begins, but it is of such a nature that it also could not happen more than once, in the future of the work and in that sea which is what the work will be, having become an ocean on its own scale.

… This event upsets relations in time, and yet affirms time, the particular way time happens, the tale’s own time which enters the narrator’s duration in such a way as to transform it, and the time of the metamorphoses where the different temporal ecstasies coincide in an imaginary simultaneity and in the form of the space which art is trying to create.




December 26, 2015

The Medium Serves the Story-telling

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:26 am

… the bird is nowhere to be seen; his swoop is in the cloud rhythms and his beating wings in the limbs of a dead tree.

This is from the essay ‘Charles Burchfield: Nature as Sign’ found in Nature and Art Are Physical: Writings on Art, 1967-2008 by Rackstraw Downes (2014):

He took more interest in music and literature than in the great schools of painting. The beauty of his career is that the more independent its direction, the better the work.

His art offends virtually all the predilections of modern taste. No Pirandellian preoccupation with the act of making art, no Cubist collage announcing the reality of the picture; from a watercolorist not even any splashy bravura washes or virtuoso dry-brush rendering; for Burchfield the medium serves the story-telling: it is what he has to tell that makes his use of it so original.

[line break added] One older artist seeing his early work remarked “If this is watercolor painting I have wasted a lifetime studying methods and techniques.” Burchfield commented, “No doubt he had, for by that remark he revealed that he was a true pedant; and a pedant cannot become an artist … because he puts form ahead of content and suffers over any deviation from what is ‘proper.’

… He once described himself as “96 percent introvert,” and the tone of his imagination is peculiar to the solitary. It revels in the pathetic fallacy, animating the natural world, coloring it — especially in his early works — in a deliberate attempt to recapture childhood moods, fearful, nostalgic, wistful. They are moods which are generally found embarrassing by the sophisticated, haunted since Baudelaire by more tortuous emotions. But as with the Celtic tales and plays of Yeats or the novels of Knut Hamsen, both favorites of the artist, this is a serious attempt to break with the artificial, to evoke life on a simpler, more elemental plane.

… In the middle 1940s, Burchfield, feeling that his work had digressed, turned to nature for his themes again; he even reworked some of his earliest pictures. Shortly before his death he said that he needed a quarter century more to finish what he had to say; while most artists would like to have this thought of them, and many persuade at least themselves that it is true … Burchfield did not exaggerate.

… In the best of these last watercolors (and they are uneven; there are some garish, theatrical monsters among them), whatever seemed quaint and contrived about the early ones is overcome; the curlicue becomes a loping arc made with a fat brushstroke; the harshly brilliant color grows luminous; little symbols vanish into a bold metaphorical design. In Sparrowhawk Weather the bird is nowhere to be seen; his swoop is in the cloud rhythms and his beating wings in the limbs of a dead tree.

Charles Burchfield, Sparrowhawk Weather




December 25, 2015

The Kinds of Wings

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:55 am

… we are told only that the wings are spread, not that they assist in any kind of elevation …

This is from Beckett, Modernism and the Material Imagination by Steven Connor (2014):

… For Beckett, imagination is not a spontaneously indwelling and upwelling power, but a strenuous and exhausting labor that comes close to the ideas of staging, seeing through or putting into practice. ‘A voice comes to one in the dark, Imagine’ begins Company, inaugurating the stern imperative maintained through the text of making possibility actual, or rendering things finite.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] Although often credited in the Romantic tradition as the power that promises transcendence of the merely finite world, Beckett’s imagination is typically described as defective and itself in need of being imagined. This task is strangely insistent. Even when imagination seems to have expired altogether, it represents just another task of imagining: ‘Imagination Dead Imagine,’ an imagination that is completely dead and done for, just imagine what that could be like. ‘Imagination at wit’s end spreads its sad wings,’ we read in Ill Seen Ill Said.

[line break added] Knowing that the imagination in question is an unusually, even grotesquely, reason-ridden affair may help to explain how imagination, traditionally the antagonist or enlarger of wit, might be said to be at its own wit’s end, but this does not provide much help in understanding the kinds of wings it might seek to rise on. Indeed, we are told only that the wings are spread, not that they assist in any kind of elevation — which could well be the source of their sadness.

[line break added] And, of course, imagination can have or take wing only by an act of imagining, as it has here in fact in the hobbled form of a rather fatigued and lumbering cliché, even if it is the conspicuous leadenness of the phrase which deploys it that gives it its sardonic lift. The imagination in Beckett’s work is always a material imagination, always on the alert against its own tendency to levitate or refine itself out of existence, while Beckett is himself strongly attuned to the gaseous correlates of the mental faculties.

… I aim through these readings of the different forms the material imagination takes in Beckett’s work — the athletic imagination of effort, the imagination of slowness and speed, the imagination of the body grown literally sick of itself and the imagination of and through the technical and material apparatus of hearing and speaking — to intimate an alternative state or strain of the modern, which stresses its commitment to a kind of being in the world that must nevertheless eschew any sense of that world’s, or that being’s, simple inherence.




December 24, 2015

Perceptual Retraining

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

… “There are various levels where your mind can make connections.”

This is from American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary by Scott MacDonald (2013):

… In my view, the most interesting development in avant-garde film and video during the 2000s and early 2010s has been the continued emergence of a meditative or contemplative cinema of place that has taken two roughly distinct forms. Some filmmakers — Nathaniel Dorsky is the preeminent instance — create complex, subtle (and in Dorsky’s case, silent) montages, organized according to what Dorsky has called “polyvalence”:

[line break added] “I want successive images to be disparate and connected, and I want each shot to link back to earlier shots. The connection can be as simple as the return of a certain red or of a particular pattern. Sometimes it’s the iconography. There are various levels where your mind can make connections. They say the grandchildren are actually more like their grandparents than their parents; my method feels something like that. I want each shot to continue to play a role, after the next shot, and the next, have passed.”

… The other approach to a meditative/contemplative cinema of place is exemplified by the films of Peter Hutton, the films and high-definition videos of James Benning since 1995 (most obviously 13 Lakes and Ten Skies, both 2004), and Sharon Lockhart’s (2003) and Double Tide (2009). These films and videos are committed to rigorous composition, shots of extended duration, and visual (and auditory) subtlety — and to the use of cinemagoing as a form of perceptual retraining away from the hysterical consumption (of imagery, of products) promoted by the commercial media.

Still Point (2009) can be understood as reducing [Alfred] Guzzetti’s experimental videos to an essence: the kinds of image and sound he uses are familiar from earlier work, but the experience is slowed down, “stilled/distilled,” for our more careful examination (in Still Point Guzzetti forgoes text, both visual and audio). At the same time, however, as short as Still Point is (14½ minutes), the individual shots, and the video as a whole feel epic, not only as a result of being shot in high definition and projected wide screen, but because Guzzetti’s expansive compositions, the videos elegant pacing, and the startling variety of spaces included.

[line break added] While earlier Guzzetti videos engage the often overwhelming qualities of modern life, Still Point is consistently meditative. Like Hutton/Benning/Lockhart, Guzzetti seems to have returned to the “still point” where cinema began, to the approach to filmmaking instituted by the Lumière Brothers and their excitement with capturing extended, well-composed 50-second images of the familiar and unfamiliar world around them.




December 23, 2015

Gently Onto the Water

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:51 am

… “When you’re casting you have to time your cast so that the fly on the end of your line settles gently onto the water … “

This is from The New Color Photography by Sally Eauclaire (1981):

Although the history of color photography goes back more than a hundred years and modern film has been on the market since 1936, color photography did not come of age as an art form until the late 1960s.

This time lag is startling, considering that the world exists in full color and photography has been valued since its invention for its mimetic powers. Yet the colors unique to color photography produced what once seemed insurmountable problems. Color film’s exaggeration of subject hue and the concurrent difficulty of formally organizing the visible world’s raucous color combinations gave the medium an aura of vulgarity.

Colors of the same value, such as red and green, which convert to compatibly similar gray tones in a black-and-white photograph pulsate violently when represented adjacently in a color print. According to optical principles, hues advance and retreat from the picture plane with often disconcerting results. … When color photographs are taken in bright illumination, dark shadows often obtrude like silhouettes. The result: disjunctive compositions with prominent spatial discrepancies.

… Working out in the world, where directorial control over illumination, object color, and relative physical position is obviously difficult if not impossible to attain, color photographers mainly fumbled and floundered until around 1970 when they modified their traditional naturalistic priorities.

… their photographs [those of the new, post-70s photographers] revealed the purely visual, two-dimensional viability of the three-dimensional world. By careful framing of a selected section of the world, they learned to anticipate and enlist color film’s hue exaggerations and the spatial codifications imposed by all lenses.

Since many of the distinctively photographic tendencies conscripted for this end seemed suspiciously similar to the unintentional, unwanted by-products of careless snap-shooting (such as overexposure or accidental cropping) some critics perceived this approach as a wholesale indulgence in chance. To the contrary, the most capable photographers applying such deliberate methods employ fastidious tactics intelligently designed to stress, extend, and extract qualities unique to their medium. Though often inspired by an amateur’s accidents, their works are as similar to snapshots as Abstract Expressionist paintings are to oil spills.

… They test every edge, tone, color, and texture for its expressive potential and structural function. Each photograph represents a delicately adjusted equilibrium in which a section of the world is coopted for its visual possibilities, yet delineated with the utmost specificity.

… Conspicuous design is not instantaneously apparent, and so some viewers search in vain for an obvious message. Since the subject matter has not been bullied into exaggerated angles or supersaturated colors, many viewers find the works lacking in impact. Because the new formalists eschew the grand jeté in favor of a strategy that carefully coordinates all components, many viewers are bored. Those receptive to the subtle, sequenced impact of a multilayered image are far outnumbered by the audience who believes a good photograph must be instantly accessible. When the subject seems missing altogether, the photographer may be accused of pulling the wool over the eyes of critics, curators, and the public.

[ … ]

… [Stephen] Shore likens the visual tension of his best photographs to the “constant pressure” maintained by trout fishermen:

When you’re casting you have to time your cast so that the fly on the end of your line settles gently onto the water, thus giving the trout the impression that it’s biting at the real fly. It’s a tricky procedure to master, and the key to it, the way experts explain it, is constant pressure. It’s a feeling of the line on the rod tip that is always there.

[line break added] Without constant pressure the timing falters, and so does the fly line, leaving the caster with a disconnected, where-did-it-go feeling. Of course, it’s very possible to take pictures without constantly paying attention to every decision that needs to be made, but my experience was that when my attention wandered and I started making decisions automatically, there was something missing in the pictures and I was left with that where-did-it-go feeling.

Stephen Shore, El Paso Street, El Paso, Texas, 1975

… [Jan Groover’s] Views of lower Manhattan buildings are to Max Kozloff “dark soaked visions” of going “dramatically blind in broad daylight.”:

These meditative highly personalized studies of stony and highly transparent surfaces depend all the more on color the scarcer it is. It’s as if the pupil has to dilate in order to penetrate spaces grown irrational because they have been reduced into long, deep shards of tonal nothingness. (Her shutter has been gauged only for the light.) The human desolation of these locales serves all the more to concentrate one’s own gaze, drawn, as if in communion, to the inanimate solids of the street. Umbers hold the glance, provide intimacy, and eventual credence. Still, her triptych sequences compound enigma, for even though shaded areas abut each other across the frames, suggesting a common place, differing perspectives wrench it apart.

Jan Groover, Untitled, 1976 [this is not the one that is in the book, but it’s similar]

To be continued.




December 22, 2015

How Arbitrary They Are

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:51 am

… True philosophy is not the one that lays down certainties …

Continuing through Art Brut by Michel Thévoz (1995):

The Postman Cheval‘s Ideal Palace, built from 1879 to 1912

… In his autobiography Ferdinand Cheval has some shrewd things to say about madness, which apply equally well to other makers of Art Brut. It was not, he says, because he was crazy that he built his Palace, it was because he built his Palace that he was called crazy, and if he had let his imagination carry him much further, he would have been interned.

Clarence Schmidt’s seven story, thirty-five room House of Mirrors, ~1898

… Their ignorance of architectural and cultural traditions is too insidious and subversive for it to be put down to autism, to absorption in a mental world of phantasy. For in fact these builders, and the makers of Art Brut generally, are more attentive, more responsive and also more allergic than normally integrated individuals to the principles and conventions governing social life.

[line break added] And so they are more inclined to question these principles, to take liberties with them, to reverse or interchange or replace them, rather as linguists do with words to see how the system works. True philosophy is not the one that lays down certainties and classifies phenomena; on the contrary, it is the one that discerns the reasons for these categories and makes clear how arbitrary they are.

Stephen Sykes’s sixty-five foot Incuriosity, 1898-1964

My most recent previous post from Thévoz’s book is here.




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