Surface Modulation: Chapter Three of Figure Ground Rhythm Thesis by Jamie Hahn 2010
Spring grass has a kind of gentle sway about it as wind caresses the thin, tapering blades. Peaking through the damaged brown, dry grass of winter, the new blades shine and glisten in fresh color. Not yet cut, the new blades reach high toward the light of the sun and create a bed of density from which all other growth compares.
The view from here is of a detailed foreground that blends at eye level into a middle ground of land. Framing from above is a telephone line, which serves as a reminder of the distance between myself and the background of willow trees layered in front of a low hill. The sun is permeating through the new leaves, illuminating their tonality as they contrast the branches from which they stem. The from here is of warmth. The sun casts light through the blades, the leaves, and the trees with new buds.
Surface a gust of movement, a contrasting moment of perception alters the visual to reveal the tangible as my apparent stillness recalls a passive engagement within this constancy. I am transfixed by the complexity of nature in this landscape as each moment eases into the next. The sun begins to set and a light breeze brings about a cooler interpretation of discernment amongst all things herein. Every blade, every branch, every plant sways in reaction to the atmosphere. My figure to ground rhythm is in constant flux as time reveals difference.
Surface color, texture, form. Surface a screen, a frame, an expression.
Wispy clouds of fog dance across the mountain, reminding me of my rhythmic interchange between self and air, skin and spatiality. I draw inspiration from looking out the window. Though simple in action, the result urges a desire to meditate with nature as though to bond myself further within a living space of moment to moment perception; moments that deepen a desire to integrate my soul with the changeability that the landscape provides. A constancy of interplay, movement directs a meaning within my memory and my identity of self within place, a location, a history. I reflect, I engage, I learn, I embrace. Anew is my attention to each moment as visual and tangible perception reveals a difference within a space of internal simplicity.
Surface an exterior repetition. Surface a rhythm of similarity.
Difference within similarity of an atmospheric landscape can surface within a moving image. Similar to the representations discussed thus far, artists using video, film, frame and screen extended their perceptual view of the landscape by positioning the resulting projection as an example of moment to moment difference. Defined as experimental or avante garde film makers, these interpreters of motion within nature were as transfixed by atmospheric alterations of form and the resulting affect on mood as the Tonalists. Engaging the viewer with subtlety, Larry Gottheim and Peter Hutton each employed the camera to record single, continuous shots of subtle difference within a frame of an otherwise steady landscape. By embracing the temporal structure of the medium, they were able to identify a similarity of form as it related to movement and shifting suggestions within nature. Considerations of spatiality and viewer entry into the frame developed as a formal element. The two dimensional design of the fixed frame structure (projection screen) was key in the process of contextualizing an overall concept.
One of the most influential writers on experimental film, Scott McDonald, draws comparisons between Gottheim, Hutton and the history of American landscape artists, in his book “The Garden in the Machine“. Acknowledging the use of time in moment to moment perception as illustrated in the moving format, McDonald explores the representation of nature and landscape in what he expresses as “minimalist tactics” of these two particular avante garde filmmakers. Gottheim’s work of the early 1970’s contrasted heavily against the prevailing contemporary mindset of visual perception in time within a film or cinematic frame. He pushed the boundary of expectation often driving his viewers into irritation or annoyance at how “boring or slow” the piece seemed to be. Almost photographic in its apparent stillness, the imagery was even more bold through its silence.
“Viewers have been trained to feel that landscape is not a legitimate subject for even a ten-minute film experience. This provides us with a measurement of how different our sensibilities are from those of the previous century. When I ask viewers after a screening of Gottheim’s Fog Line what they’ve just seen, frequent response is “Nothing!”. Without overt plot and movement, viewers are just virtually blind to subtlety.”
Larry Gottheim’s Fog Line, 1970, introduces simple complexity as the opening frame displays a dense, green rectangle. Nearly an abstraction, the piece evolves slowly, “What one sees and can identify depends on the relative thickness of the fog, which gradually clears but does not disappear”. What one sees also depends on how attentive a viewer is of the subtle motion. Gottheim presents a fixed viewpoint. The only changes occurring are the atmospheric elements shifting or lifting as they reveal forms hidden within. Trees become identifiable as do three “high-tension wires”. Within this framing device, Gottheim allows the lifting of the fog to make visible suggestive moments happening in this set duration of time. The wires offer linear sections that break the composition into thirds, each section offering a change to the viewer who hasn’t “spaced out” to the green, murky introduction. McDonald writes, “The wires are central to Gottheim’s thinking about the scene he depicts. Their compositional effect is to raise our consciousness of the upper and lower horizontal lines of the film frame and of the frame’s rigid rectangularity. While we usually tend to use the film frame as a window into the conventional illusion of three dimensional space, the lines mitigate against our penetration of the space, and draw attention to the surface. The dispersal of fog is gradual that one cannot be sure when changes are actually occurring in the image and when they are occurring in the mind.”
Bringing attention to the capabilities of the medium and of the visual perceptual system, Gottheim intentionally presents a perspective as interpreted by first, his selection, and second, the camera’s transformation of it. The grainy surface of the film is illuminated by the projection and the surface of the material becomes an integral element of the composition’s formal elements. By creating a kind of perspectival spatiality, he reveals layers of shifting consciousness between the screen, the image and an illusion of meaning therein. Transient visual perception meets meditative focus in this atmospheric landscape. What was once a vague entry of abstracted tonalities and subtle forms, the view becomes an active visual experience tuned to individual discernment as suggestive moments linger on the edge of believability.
Here we find the frame of surface between materiality, illusion, projection and image. In Peter Hutton’s films, as in Fog Line, movement within a landscape is subtle and gradual. This modulation allows a very dramatic and intense representation of what moment-to-moment perception actually looks like and perhaps more importantly, what it feels like. Hutton is especially interested in tuning into the viewers mind through their senses. Through “spatial and temporal compositions” he allows “a revelation of the motion of the world to speak directly to the viewers mind”. Directing his work to this state, something of a meditative state akin to the Tonalists, he positions or re-positions the subject of the film to be a subject of the viewer’s own sense of introspection. Infused with qualities of light and atmosphere, his fundamental gesture directs the following in Landscape for Manon, 1987, as McDonald writes,
“An unusual perceptual process develops in these landscapes. In nearly every instance, the landscape seems first like a still photograph. It is only if and when one accepts this apparent stillness that a subtler form of motion begins to tease the eye and mind, and we realize that what looked to be still is actually a part of a much larger order of motion: the cloud masses are gradually, relentlessly shifting through the space defined by the frame; the subtleties of the composition are continually evolving to reveal an order much greater than the rectangular world represented by the camera.”
By extending perception from a visual systematic response to an internal reflection of introspection and self awareness, both Hutton and Gottheim embrace a sense of “the transformative”. Each illuminate the screen with moving atmospheres in a frame of landscape. In likeness to the Tonalists, their illusive depictions direct an internal destination.
Within this transient dialog between screen, illusion and introspection, it becomes evident that movement or modulation, occurs cyclically. In his book Movement as Meaning, Daniel Barnett enters a discourse in how movement is meaningful in avante garde film and other moving imagery. He suggests that as a surface modulates it shifts perception from a maker’s perspective, to what the camera frames and represents, to the projection frame and the illusory surface of the screen, and then, to the internal psychological frame of reflection. In consideration of the composition, Barnett states, “Pictorial movement within the overall design offers rhythms to shift our attention as the eye moves and revisits elements, making subsequent comparisons to represent a dialogue between ourselves and the composition. It’s as if the surface of the image becomes a semi-silvered mirror as our mind dialogues with itself, contemplating the relationships between what is seen and how it feels.”
Within this perceptual shifting, a tension arises, drawing us “from a depicted place in the world to the place we are in the moment, and then, to a contemplation of the comparison between the two.” Now we can see how the figure to ground rhythm occurs in time, between the viewer and the projected image, the moment between difference and similarity, and exterior surface to the internal reflection of contemplation.
Thesis Bibliography: Chapter Four
Barnett, Daniel. Movement as Meaning: in Experimental Film. Rodopi BV, Amsterdam-NY, 2008
McDonald, Scott. The Garden and the Machine. University of California Press, 2001.
Spielmann, Yvonne. Video the Reflexive Medium. MIT Press, 2008.