Tag Archives: carleton

deja vu

Seniors at Carleton get to enjoy a process called ‘comps’ (a ‘comprehensive project’ for one’s major), and for the CAMS department, part of this entails (quickly!) writing a sizable paper on an ‘Object of Analysis’ that is specially selected for each senior comps student.  My object is Bill Viola’s Hatsu-Yume, a 56 minute video piece he created in Japan in 1981 as part of his artistic residency with Sony Corporation, immediately following a year and a half of Zen Buddhist study with the priest Daien Tanaka as part of a cultural exchange between the U.S. and Japan.

The work, the first ten minutes of which are viewable above, is beautiful and mesmerizing in itself, but I recently made a discovery about the increasingly uncanny way in which Hatsu-yume is proving to be the best possible object that the CAMS faculty could have gifted me with:

I was transfixed by Bill Viola before I knew I had been, before I began to watch Hatsu-yume.  And then I was transfixed again.

Last spring, while I was on the study abroad OCS New Media Roadtrip in Europe, we made a stop at the ARoS museum in Arhus, Denmark, on our 3-day bus-tour of the country, after 8 weeks of cultural and artistic and aesthetic sensory overload across the continent of Europe.  We were taken on a quick tour of the museum’s extensive collection of modern and contemporary art, including a visit to the ‘basement’ of installation art.

Once we were let loose to wander the remainder of the museum, I found myself drawn back to the massive dark room, the first we had visited in the basement, where a complex rushing soundscape enveloped the ears and 5 giant screens punctuated the darkness, each with a color-scaled video loop of eerily slow and life-sized bodies plunging, periodically in or out of the water on the screen.  Each plunge or flight – it was hard to distinguish, gravity was unleashed in this underwater-like world – was proceeded or accompanied by a particularly powerful build and rush of sound, like waterfalls, but eerie.  This was Five Angels for the Millennium – and until a few days ago, after having received my copy of Hatsu-yume and watching it twice and beginning to investigate this Bill Viola fellow – I had not realized who the artist was whose work had held me so transfixed that day in Denmark.

A still: one of the angels ascending.

I didn’t leave that installation until it was time to get lunch and re-board the bus to continue our encircling of the vastness of Denmark – I lay among Five Angels for the Millennium and let the almost prenatal feeling of the sound wash over me, as I wrestled my fear and fascination with the bodies and bodies of water, the ‘five angels’ that came in and out of the room almost at random.  There was terror and awe in the work, a sense of death but also life, an uncertainty that bred a desire to stay, to find some impirical way to make sense of the world Viola had created – it was, at the same time, profoundly spiritual, in a way that left me drained and fulfilled.

Having known (now that I know that I knew it already) the work of this amazing artist so intimately, it is no wonder that I should find myself equally transfixed by Hatsu-Yume.  It uses ‘ambient’ (I use this term with great caution and trepidation) sound in similar ways, to create a tension that synchretically adds value to the images, but is, in essence, essential to their power as driving, rhythmic forces.  The boundary between sound/image, the way they interact to exert a strange holistic power on the senses, is very much at play in Viola’s oeuvre.  There is also something religious about both pieces – a religion of light and sound, if you will.  And both have captured me entirely.

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transitory thoughts

So…what was that?

After almost three months abroad, I am about to return to U.S. soil this afternoon.  Taking time to reflect is fairly unavoidable.

I began this blog in Spain; it has followed me from Barcelona to Switzerland, France, Germany, Denmark — and now both The Semioptician and I are returning home, as it were.  It seems a little strange to think of a blog as having a corporeal ability to return to a physical home, but so many of the ideas and curiosities that underlie this project were sparked on the Carleton campus, where I will be arriving roughly 12 hours from now, give or take some time difference.  So if this blog has any home, it may be Carleton.

But of course, part of the beauty of the internet is its lack of fixity — some may argue for it as a ‘non-place’, but there must be a point at which the growing proliferance of non-places in the world simply results in a newer sense of place, such as an online place that is hypertextual and expansive and yes, largely virtual.  But the thoughts in these virtual statements are no different than any thoughts that I might set to physical paper with a real-life pen.

‘Real life’.  An interesting concept.  I was recently discussing (via the ‘virtual’ means of Facebook chat, no less) this established dichotomy between the lives of college students and this nebulous outer world of adults and jobs which is somehow more ‘real’.  Obviously there are inherent contradictions in asserting that any aspect of life is more real than any other, but this invites all kinds of complications about how one perceives ‘reality’ and whether we can ever be certain about our perceptions of it, and other things that keep angsty pseudo-philosophers like myself lying awake late at night.  But in returning to the ‘real world’, as I will undoubtedly slip up and term it in the next few days, after these three months of such foreign and varied and exhilarating experiences in Europe, this is something I am thinking about, in spite of logical fallacies (which I have a habit of pushing past in many of my lines of reason).  My return to the ‘real world’, where that means America and the life I knew before I left in March, corresponds with a departure from ‘real life’, that is, back into the Carleton Bubble, as we term the insulated space in which we academiate, incubated.  Ironic?  Perhaps.  Totally thrilling and daunting?  Yes, very much so.

But am I going back to the same life?  The goal of study abroad, we are so often told, is to change us.  Through academics and language, through experience, through culture shock, through the opening of doors we didn’t know were there.  My study abroad has been more than dynamic, all told.  It has certainly changed my trajectory in the immediate and possibly long-term future.  I have new scars, literal and metaphorical.

"Soft Self-Portrait with Implied Scarring."

At the risk of sounding cliched, my way of looking at the world has changed — quite literally.  As a student of visual culture, I have come in contact with a dizzying array of art and artists (and a bit of academics and academia) over these months.  You know how so many authors tell young aspiring writers to simply read (and read and read some more)?  I think this applies more broadly to the arts (and life) in general, and so much exposure to a billion new ways of visualizing meaning and emotion and experience cannot help but sensitize me to what I as an artist and theorist can and ought and want to be doing.

And on a completely practical level, I have put in the long hours of work that are the foundation of being a photographer — shooting every day, over 10,000 pictures later, I have failed enough to begin to find a style that speaks to me.  There may even be a couple hundred photos among those thousands and thousands that are actually good, and of those couple hundred, several dozen GREAT photographs.  In practice, photography is chance married to concept, and an understanding of why you are shooting.

Conclusions: I really dig concept art.  I still dig modern and contemporary art (already knew that, but good to get some confirmation).  I will probably not ever been in the mainstream film industry in a productive capacity.  I will never be a commercial photographer, but I have learned to love photographs for themselves and, I think, understand a bit the many things they can do and mean.  I may be an experimental filmmaker.  I will live in New York City for at least 3 months of my life.  And I really need to sit down and read, completely, everything that Jacques Derrida has ever written.

I am not the same person who flew out of MSP almost three months ago; life has been happening, in various shades of reality.  And life is about to continue to happen, for all of the new incarnations of my Self encountering all of the visual worlds there are to see.

(layers upon) layers upon layers

New Post on Grid-City photography!

In order to add yet another layer — I’m meta-posting here about another post of mine elsewhere, namely my latest contribution to my current New Media Seminar’s blog.  If you like photography, or you like meta, or you like the way I sometimes put words of the English language in a certain order, check it out here!

including photography!

Normally when I’m at Carleton, seeing the campus announcements Digest arrive in my mailbox produces a groan, or at least a sigh of resignation.  This is because the Digest always arrives around 2 am (standard central time), so being awake for the moment of its digital transmission is a clear indicator that I should actually be in bed.  Unfortunately, I was in the habit of experiencing this early-morning herald way too often last term.

But now that I am living in Barcelona, where everything happens seven hours in the future (and I do of course still check my Carleton email), seeing the campus announcements arrive is a good thing – it means I’m awake and functioning at a reasonable enough hour to take the time to caffeinate before catching the metro to class near Placa Catalunya.  (That being said, the fact that I am checking my email first thing in the morning/often enough to see this particular missive arrive is itself a rather interesting reflection of the centrality of the digital, technology, and of course the internet, to life in the modern Western world – a reliance that was made all too clear to me this morning when I arrived at class and discovered I had forgotten my laptop and felt utterly cut-off in both a social and academic sense…)

But what struck me about this issue of the campus announcements was not so much the way in which how my temporal shift influences my interpretation of how I receive them, but rather a minor semantic choice in one of the announcements itself:

“Send submissions of poetry, art (including photography), short stories, plays…”

I have no intention, as some photographers might, of taking any offense at the Manuscript staff for the implication that photography is in fact not art (as the need to specifically include it under this category suggests), but this minor detail reflects a major historical debate that I find fascinating, and this is an excellent excuse to revive it.

The question: IS PHOTOGRAPHY ART?  Back when Pictorialists like Rejlander and Robinson were exploring the newness of the medium in a way that would not forget the art of painting, with photo-composites and darkroom manipulations, photography was considered as something of a ‘hand-maiden to the arts’, to quote Rejlander.  The struggle to legitimize the practice in the face of accusations about its mere mechanical nature has shaped much of the history of photography since then, with movement away from such blatant manipulation in the late 19th century now coming full circle in the era of Photoshop, such that some current branches of photography are, to my mind, a sort of Neo-Pictorialism, although with differing goals than the original Pictorialists.  Modernism and Post-Modernism have removed the driving need for authenticity, or for strict adherence to a definition of art that is classically painterly or sculpturely – opening up expansively the extent to which photography falls into the classification of ‘art’.

The Two Ways of Life, Rejlander's most famous and controversial photograph, which is actually a composite of seven different images.

In trying to say whether or not photography, as a massive and polysemous practice, is art, we forget about the multiplicities of meanings and uses it can have.  Commerical sports photography is not Paul Strand is not Cindy Sherman is not the contents my most recent Facebook album.  Perhaps not all photography is art, and of course not all art in photography, but if art is that which is expressive and interpretable (even if that expression and interpretation is located, meaning-wise, in the viewer-interpreter), then by all means a photograph can be a work of art.

The underlying question, then, is what is art?  I want to claim that photography is not not art, but part of me has a hard time saying that most of the pictures on Facebook fall into the category.  I have further reservations about my own reservations, because I sense the cultural and societal construction of the meaning I attach to this word ‘art’ – or rather, an entire shifting discourse that surrounds it.  A discourse structure by the gallery, the art museum, the whole world of ‘art’ which privileges some things over others – high art over low, or when we wish to be provocative or transgressive, sometimes low art over high.  Perhaps in broadening a definition of art, we need to privilege the very fact that art cannot be simply segregated into low or high – there is a continuum, and the point along that continuum where any given practice or piece of art (including photography) falls is steeped in its own socialization and subjectivity.