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.