Surface Modulation

Deer Field, 4:54, single channel video, 2010, Jamie Hahn,

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.Save



Today is Wednesday July 6, 2016. I am feeling familiarity and calm this morning. Many things around me are similar, but the differences remind me of time and place and how memory intertwines with the present. I am sitting at the same desk in the same room. However, it is on the opposite side of the room and the computer is a laptop instead of my large Mac. The room has been updated with new tile and painting and decorative blinds and rugs. There is a lovely palm plant in the corner. My memory of living here for nearly a year is blending with the present reality of our three-week visit. This is our third day and I look forward to writing, reflecting and making my work.

I had planned to start Chapter 2 of my thesis with this entry. However, it is feeling more relevant to recall an entry from an older blog about my experience here that first year.

     “Sunday December 28, 2014
Chasing the sun…..
The sun sets differently this time of year. I did not realize how the landscape would change here. How the light has been altered due to the time of the month and this date near the end of the year. My last visit here was five months ago. Then, it was hot, humid and mostly sunny. Now, it is warm, humid and mostly sunny. This is my third day in this new landscape and what is now being called home.
The sun set at 5:56 pm according to the app on the phone. I looked out the window at approximately 5:30. The view from within the frame of the window provided a glimpse at the sunset. Luminous clouds filled the space between the horizon and the darkening sky. I decided to go out to take in this view and my husband suggested that we hop in the car for a quick drive to the shoreline. As we walked quickly from the parking lot to the water, I felt as though we were chasing the sun. Between 5:48 pm and 5:56 pm the sun no longer cast its warmth and instead took up residence in the clouds hovering above the sea.

March 31, 2015

I have been here for three months. Rarely do I really consider where I am in relationship to place and perspective. I do not feel as though I am on an island. When driving, I see the water on one side at times, but never on both. This sense of relating to a place and its boundaries can only reveal itself realistically if actually perceived. And, at the moment, while in the act of walking or driving, such a view is not possible and therefore, seems to block the idea of the ‘island’. I have yet to gain that understanding. How is this space, this place perceived?

I’ve always had an interest in maps and direction. Growing up in northeast Indiana, I was surrounded by square miles of farmland. The house I grew up in was in a subdivision. However, the house was not part of the usual plan or organization and sat rather, on the parameter of the neighborhood. The backyard was not square or symmetrical and continued its boundary into an undetermined space of a wooded ravine. My childhood was filled with walks through this rugged place. Drawn to texture and details in nature, I recall explorations of plants and trees. By contrast, the daily route to elementary school involved traveling into the symmetrical fields of soybeans and corn. Less than a mile from home the roads turned from curvy to straight and the view opened. The charted path of the school bus involved time as it picked up students along the way. The thirty minute ride often included the act of simply looking out the window. The frame of the window selected my view.
The landscape of the place I grew up altered slightly when my family moved from the subdivision to a new neighborhood roughly four miles to the north and east. This home was located along a slightly curvy East/West state highway intersecting the square mile grid of North and South county roads. The backyard was pastoral as it encompassed several acres of land filled with a large pond surrounded by walnut, pine and sycamore trees. A winding creek flowed through an open space of wild grasses and unruly developments of Goldenrod and Milkweed. After the childhood years of exploration of the previous home, I was newly challenged by this space with its offerings of water, steep ravines and room to walk.
A few years ago I began to study the map of this landscape. I was intrigued by Google Maps and the new ability to view an area from above through the use of a computer. Through this study, I learned about my home place from a new perspective. I could see the roads connecting and the creek winding. I found myself in awe in the realization that the two home places were more connected than previously thought. The creek that flowed behind my childhood home was the same of my second home. Clear Creek charted its curvy path through the county roads from north to south where it eventually ended in the Wabash River.
This study of my home place arrived at a time of learning to navigate a new landscape. I was searching for similarities in a seemingly dissimilar place. I wondered about how to connect with a new place? How does the new space become familiar? Does it become a home? How does this relationship form?

A few years ago I made a new piece titled, “Merging Space, Merging Place”. As a time­-based single channel video, the piece aimed to answer questions I had about where I lived as it compared to my home in Indiana. I often made work considering this question. In the summer of 2008, I moved away from northeast Indiana for the first time. I had lived in the region for thirty­-one years (including college a mere fifty miles to the south). I was ready for a change in scene and a chance to make my work. Alfred, NY was about five hundred miles to the east and north. Surrounded by steep hills and low mountains, the village was small, quaint and charming. I found this new landscape to be very visually intriguing. The horizon line altered with each step and mile explored. No longer enclosed by square miles of farmland, I embraced the difference and challenged my sense of direction by taking many un-mapped excursions into the wilderness. My art soon became a study of this place and my relationship to it.

The two-year study in Alfred focused on research development for achieving a Master in Fine Arts degree. My research included visual art in the form of time based media with video, prints and artist books. Much of the imagery at the beginning depicted the land of Western New York, but it evolved to include the land I’d left behind. In my visits home, I continued the daily practice of making work by taking pictures and video of my favorite places. In leaving home, I found myself eager to return to the landscape for its meditative and soothing atmosphere. My relationship with this place was steeped in memory and years of exploration. Each time I visited during those two years, I found deeper appreciation for what it offered: a sense of history and connection and a difference to what appeared to be so exciting in the hills of Alfred. While I accepted difference in both locations, I found similarities and began to further research what would become my thesis.

In April of 2010, my MFA thesis culminated in a final exhibition titled, “Figure Ground Rhythm: Electronic Meditations on Time”. The visual element took form in exhibition design within a gallery space. A video installation room dominated and intersected the direction of view from beginning to end as the viewer became a participant in the four-dimensional relationship to place. All of the pieces interconnected to reveal a place: my home in northeast Indiana. The written thesis delved into research of landscape in art throughout history including: American Tonalism, straight photography, Pictorialism, American landscape painting of the 1800’s, German Romanticism, Claude Monet, and more recently experimental film and video art of the 1970’s. A study of psychology and perception were also included, as I was additionally influenced by Deleuze and Lacan. My work now, is at it was then, continues to be about place and time, meditation, introspection and identity in relationship to the landscape.

Last Friday I attended a luncheon for a ladies group celebrating six years of meeting once a month. Throughout the hour, they shared stories of the beginning and how various experiences became a yearly ritual. During the luncheon, as the women reflected, I too thought back to six years ago when I was half way through the first year of MFA studies in Alfred. Five years ago I completed my degree. Two years ago in March I sent an email to an old friend. A year ago we reconnected and now, we are married and living in Grand Cayman, an island surrounded by the Caribbean Sea. Today I’m asking questions about place and time as I pursue this new landscape. How does this new place connect to the others? Will the ritual of the tide and subtle sea remind me of the rolling hills of the Palouse? Will the sea mist add a layer of diffusion to an otherwise known landscape? Will my walk here also become a search for familiarity?”