Sunday, March 1, 2009

Caryn's Introduction

(still from my film "Alstromeria")

I’m a filmmaker and media artist living and working in New York and Seattle. I was a teacher for many years at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Recently, though, I returned to school to make films and re-tool my technological skill set. I left the Pacific Northwest with an image of myself as a budding “urban farmer”: I was a gardener and composter, in my very own small urban yard. I’ve tried to find a way to maintain that aspect of my identity while living most of the time in New York City. I’m engaged in art-making activities and I frequent sites in the city that allow me to exercise those commitments in the new environment. Activities like cooking, gardening and composting are central to my work as well as my life. At screenings of an early short film, “Recipe,” I handed out copies of my soup recipes to viewers. Thus, I extended the theme of the film into the lives of audiences who viewed the work, especially if viewers went home and made, revised, and shared my soup recipes with others.

Here in New York, under the influence of Stan Brakhage and his exquisite works “Mothlight,” and “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” and under the tutelage of artist, filmmaker, and mentor Jeanne Liotta, I began to create short collage films working with plants and flowers. My first film of this type, “Alstromeria” (see the image, above), explored the various aspects of that one fascinating flower. “Seattle Solstice” (from which the still for my blog is taken) used fresh and dried plants to map the landscape in my Seattle garden in winter. I have several more films of this type in various stages of production. Each is species or site specific: I made one from plants I gathered on my neighbor’s terrace garden (“Lucy’s Terrace”). Another film (“Riverside”) used plants (even weeds) gathered at Riverside Park in late spring. “In the Conservatory” makes use of plants from the Volunteer Park Conservatory in Seattle. I believe that site specificity is central to the work, that the plants carry with them a sense of the site, and that that element is a subtle but important aspect, a kind of aura if you will, in the work.

I’m also captivated by the continual surprises inherent in the materials. For example, in making “Riverside” I discovered a weed with little heart-shaped flowers. I don’t even know the name of the weed, but it is the kind of plant you would step on or mow over without even thinking about it, and yet, especially projected in a frame, the leaves are delicate and beautiful, and that interaction changes the way I feel about the weed. For “In the Conservatory,” I wanted to preserve the freshness of the plants I used in the film, so I kept the film refrigerated before I took it into the optical printer (where I re-photograph the frames, so that I can alter the movement between frames and make it possible to really see the plants themselves). I discovered that some of the flowers retained a lot of moisture, and that the water moving through them was visible on the screen—contributing a natural animated element that I hadn’t tried to create.

I theorize that a change in scale alters the way a viewer looks at the environment the work includes and evokes. As cultural critic Richard Lanham observes,

To change scale is, as with repetition, to transform reality utterly, without changing it at all. To make art of scaling changes means making us self-conscious about perceptual distance and the conventions, neural and social, that cluster around it. That distance itself can so change an object—give it, to use Duchamp’s phrase, a “new look”—locks us into a conception of art as essentially interactive. This interactivity is the very opposite of canonical passivity. (The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology and the Arts, p. 42)

I would like to find opportunities to work with young people making DIO films using this technique, in conjunction with a botanist and in the context of a sustainability or environmental program. Making art films out of plants, exploring the immediate natural environment to find materials, understanding the way plants are put together in order to take them apart, might lead to a new and different understanding about the important role plants play in the world.

Brakhage referred to many of his experimental films as documentaries. I think of my films that way as well. They are experimental documentaries, a hybrid form. I submitted “Seattle Solstice” to a documentary festival, and I will be interested to see whether it is accepted. Right now, I am mostly working on 16mm film, but I’m exploring another kind of hybridization, that of working between the analog and digital worlds, and trying to make sense of what approaches and techniques work best, and when. On a basic level, it is necessary to digitize the film in order to work on a sound track using sound editing software. I edit a silent workprint of the film on a Steenbeck first, then digitize the negative, then further refine the cut using digital editing software, add the soundtrack digitally, then go back to the Steenbeck with a mag track of the sound for further refining before I submit the film to a negative cutter. Stills from the film are created digitally. These days, it is difficult to share a 16mm print in many venues, and impossible online. I love the look of film, and seeing my pieces projected with light behind them is the best way to view them, but sound is more robust and detailed when it is presented digitally, and digital films are more accessible. I'm still exploring these techonologically hybrid possiblities.


Jarrod Beck said...

Hi Caryn--I'm a Jeanne Liotta-ite as well. I hope you've been burying your film...
How do you grapple with the scaleshift between the 16mm leader/small finger moment and the large projection with audience? Does your work fall in between these?

Caryn said...

Hi Jarrod.

Nice to meet you. Thanks for your question. When did you study with/know Jeanne? As I said, I'm playing around with scale, and struggling with the choices of the analog and digital realms. I think my work is best projected large, and on film, because of the scale shift and detail that are available in that viewing experience, but I'm also interested in affordabilty, accessibility, interactivity, and using this technique as a educational tool, so other in-between "scales" for presenting the work are possible and even desirable.