SCREEN

For this project Haley Ryan and I built our own site-specific projection screen in the commons of the Weitz Center for Creativity at Carleton College. This screen is composed of 5 large tree branches which we sanded down, painted white and suspended above the tables and couches of the commons. The seed for this project came from our observation of the white pipes and beams that traverse the high ceiling of the commons like the canopy of a geometric white rain forest, but also from a desire to put the location of the Weitz into dialogue with the Cowling Arboretum, the nature reserve that abuts the campus. The Weitz is the place where I have spent the vast majority of my ‘official’ time at Carleton, spending countless hours there in classes, working on assignments and working at my two campus jobs. The Arb on the other hand is the place in which I have spent much my most important ‘unofficial’ time at Carleton, as it has served as the backdrop to many of the moments that feel most important to me on a visceral emotional level as I look back on the past 3 years. Both sites, then, are highly personal.

This is not necessarily the first time I have put the two spaces into conversation, as most of the films I have made while at Carleton were shot in the Arb and edited and screened in the Weitz. However, this project differs both in that it brings actual physical material from the Arb into the Weitz and in that it evinces a greater reciprocity between the two sites, prompting viewers to reconsider both, whereas in earlier projects I mostly just used the Weitz as a tool by which to explore my relationship to the Arb.

The juxtaposition of the two sites reflects on and ultimately serves to erode a larger duality that exists in our mind between ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ spaces. We think of places like the Weitz as being unnatural, but when we really think about it we find that our whole concept of ‘unnatural’ is riddled with contradictions. Human beings are after all naturally occurring elements; therefore their structures are too, just as a beaver’s dam is natural. By stripping the branches of their ‘natural’ texture and color but leaving their form, we set up a visual metaphor between the branches and the pipes, which are not really any more or less natural. The only difference is that the material that makes up the pipes has been reformed in addition to being retextured and recolored.

The stripping and painting was not the end of the process, however, as we then renaturalized the branches in a thoroughly unnatural way by projecting heavily distorted footage of a forest upon them. This gesture pushes our critique of the natural/unnatural duality to a breaking point. Are the branches more or less natural when these images are projected onto them?

The natural/unnatural theme is also interrogated by the manner in which the work will be displayed this winter. The projector will be programmed to turn on at 10:00 pm, when the fluorescent lights in the Weitz automatically turn off. During the day the screen, stationed by a large wall of windows, is illuminated primarily by light from the sun, but at night it is illuminated by unnatural sources, the florescent lights and the projector. This calls into question how our notion of time is influenced by an apparent shift from a natural world to an unnatural world, as everything we do after the sun goes down is in some way propped up by the unnatural, whether it is a simple bonfire or an advanced technology like a projector.

Another dynamic at work in this scheduling is the connection between experience of the natural and socioeconomic privilege, as after 9:00 pm only people with a Carleton ID may enter the Weitz. This leads to a situation where only those privileged enough to attend this pricey liberal arts college are privy to this rendering of the natural. This reflects a larger trend that I find very concerning, in which experience of the natural world is increasingly restricted to a privileged few.

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MEDIADROME

Out behind a parking lot on a field of grass bordering the prairie in Southwest Minnesota, a bizarre structure bulges up from out of the ground.  This structure morphs between different colors at a dizzing speed, spilling light out onto the dark field surrounding it.  It is a sloping dome, probably about 25 feet tall with a 35 foot circumference.

A strangely harmonious droning sound emanates from within, growing louder as you approach.  As you get nearer you see that the structure seems to be made of plastic.  What’s more, there are a few people gathered beside of it standing by an entrance of sorts, a plastic flap that folds back to let you in.  Like that you are inside.

Stretching out above you is a vast expanse of light, larger than the dome has any right to be as judged from the outside.  The dome flashes from one color to the next in milliseconds.  The music pulses in time with the light.  You stare up at the dome for a few seconds before noticing something even more interesting.  There are people in the dome, probably close to 100.  As the light shifts the people seem to flicker in front of you, changing tone in time with the shifting, haunting blue to blood red to an electric yellow.  As you get closer to the center the pulse of the light slows, flashing to color for an instant before fading to black for an instant then flashing to a different color.  The people around you merge with the shadows before reappearing a second later in a slightly different in a slightly different place and a slightly different mood.

Everyone is crowded around a small roped off section at the center.  As you come forward you see that this section forms a triangle.  In the center of this triangle, slightly elevated above the crowd is a brilliantly glowing half metallic sphere about three feet in diameter.  At each corner of the triangle a projector sits on a stand level with the sphere.  These three projectors point at the sphere, the mirrored surface of which bounces these three images to fill the entire dome with overlapping images.  These images converge at the peak of the dome, directly above the sphere, and it is here that the images burn brightest.

Eventually the colors all fade away and the music follows.  Different images begin to dance on screen, overlapping grids that work a strange double action first emphasizing the surface of the dome then pulling you into an illusion of infinite geometric space as they shift faster and faster.

As this suite of images ends you turn your attention to the musicians, who occupy about a quarter slice of the space inside the dome.  There is a guitarist huddled over pedalboard, a bassist, a pianist wearing a deer mask, and a drummer stationed behind a drum kit.  Off to the side a bit is a man stationed in front of what looks to be some sort of electronic drum kit.  He adjusts something on a computer sitting next to the drum kit, then looks over to the other musicians and begins to slowly strike the drum.  The dome flashes to life.  A man begins to dance jerkily across the surface of the plastic, moving in time to the playing of the man at the electronic drum.  The music kicks in, a snappy bossa nova that descends over the next few minutes into a torrent of noice without ever loosing its original pulse.  As this happens the drummer plays his strange machine more and more furiously, causing his dancing puppet to shrink and multiply until there are hundreds and then thousands of him all advancing at the same steady rate like a tiny pixelated army.  This implosion continues until the puppets are so small that the surface becomes simply a shimmering mass of pixels.  Suddenly the puppet’s face fills the entire screen, shaking violently as the music screams into up one last burst of sonic furor before crumbling and falling apart.

More series of images follow.  ‘Series of images’ doesn’t really do what you see justice but neither would movie.  By the end of the night you wander out of the dome in a daze and there you are back in Southern Minnesota.  For the first day or two after this your impression of the night is marked by a sense of unreality.  You cannot get past the feeling that it was all a dream.  Eventually though, you begin to gain a bit of distance and are able to reflect on what you experienced.  It was certainly spectacular, but was it anything more?  A movie, an amusement park, a drunk night out can all be spectacular without really affecting you.  Has this experience affected you, moved you?  This is hard to say.  You think it has but can’t point concretely to how.

Interestingly enough, the memory you drift back to most is not of the glowing images, the brilliant mirror or the spectacle of the drum controller.  Rather it is the memory of wandering around and seeing people, the same old people you see every day, flashing in and out of existence, in and out of different colors tones moods.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/johnschott/sets/72157637027039023/

More footage to follow