Tag Archives: study abroad

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.

videos from the vault

I’ve been doing some management of my digital assets, and came across two videos I made last spring while abroad in Europe on the CAMS New Media Roadtrip, which never made their way to the internet — but here they are now for your viewing pleasure!  Proof positive of what treasures a little cleaning (virtual or otherwise) can uncover.

From Berlin:

From Copenhagen:

post-transitory thoughts

I have now officially been a New Yorker for three days.  After a week spent getting over a surprisingly tough round of post-Denmark jet lag and the overwhelming joys of seeing everyone I love on the Carleton Campus, I have again moved on, this time to THE BIG APPLE, where I am interning at Anthology Film Archives and hopefully helping (and documenting) fellow Carls Gabe and Henry as they make a feature film.

In many ways, being here is like beginning yet another study abroad program — although I have visited the city as a tourist about five times previously, actually living and working in New York is as foreign to my experience thus far as being in Japan or Denmark was.  And living in Bushwick, which is heavily populated with Puerto Rican families, the predominant language is even Spanish, so I may have to brush up on my language skills here as well.  So if you count New York, by the end of this summer, I will have spent 9 of the past 12 months ‘studying abroad’ — which is strange to think about, and perhaps underlies the sense of constant movement and exhilaration coupled with a lack of permanence that I have been feeling.  I am very transient, on the cusp between student and tourist, between theorist and traveler.  And this, in large part, is what is drawing me so strongly to psychogeography — an awareness of the necessary motional state of being that is my life for now, and my youthful and energetic and perhaps over-eager desire to discover and create and postulate and explore.  Because the essence of psychogeographic exploration is really to explore with curiosity — with an open mind and open eyes.

Admittedly, my approach to New York still feels very star-struck, in many respects, from my realization that the “Goings on About Town” section of The New Yorker is now actually applicable to my daily life to my giddy disbelief at simple things like jogging in Central Park or buying tofu and milk and Gushers with Theo at The Food Emporium (cue RENT reference…).  Incorporating “Bleecker St” and “The Bowery” into my vocabulary is kind of thrilling.  And while I was first struck by the so-called ‘sketch factor’ of my living arrangements (and have been struggling not soundtrack all aspects of my life with further RENT references), a little bit of unorganized psychogeography this afternoon revealed the charm and character of my Bushwick neighborhood (and at the risk of generalizing, gave me the feeling that I had been plunged into a Spike Lee film).  I went out in search of a library card and a set of sheets, and ended up walking Bushwick Avenue at least 15 blocks or so, and meandering back until I reached Knickerbocker Avenue, which the Bushwick BK had informed me would be the panacea for all my shopping needs (which it was, since I only need sheets, and I found those, but was disappointed to learn that the Spiderman pattern only comes in twin size…).

On my walk, I learned a few things about the visual culture of the area — or rather, what one can learn about the area itself from visual presentations therein.  There are quite a lot of flags flying in the area, and while a few of these are standard stars and stripes, the vast majority are Puetro Rican flags, which is an obvious but interesting feature of my walk today, given the shocking lack of racial diversity among which I have grown up living.  Next: I have a habit of pretty much always wearing a bandana or keffiyeh around my neck, and I tend to choose the color or pattern based on a combination of what is clean and what will go well with whatever shirt or other articles of clothing I have on.  Today I opted for green, and while strolling through the further reaches of Bushwick, I was engaged in conversation regarding the color of my bandana — “You like green?”  “Green in good, right?” “We like green, but green don’t like yellow.” etc.  Luckily I was wearing the ‘right’ color for my brothers in the hood this afternoon, but I could just as easily have pulled out my yellow bandana, which is a sobering thought.

I was reminded quite suddenly of the different meanings of something as simple as a single color (or less simple, perhaps, when it carries the gang-related baggage that has become attached to the bandana as an article of clothing within areas of major cities) — and, once out of sight of the kids commenting on my neckwear, promptly removed it in case I ran into any ‘yellows’.  The inner-city semiotics of self-presentation are a perfect case-study for the specificity of culture in the meaning of any visual that becomes proscribed as a ‘symbol’.  This is also a fascinating case of reader-response criticism (and the integral nature of cultural context): as the ‘author’ of my outfit, my intended meaning of “I am a hipster look at my thift store ironic fashion and film-related t-shirt with this cool green bandana” was not read that way.  I’ll probably reserve my neckwear for Manhattan, where I know my audience will be a much higher hipster-to-normal-person ratio, so as not to prove Roland Barthes right once and for all.  But really, Bushwick is quite safe — just an excellent spot to meditate on medium specificity and knowing one’s viewer.

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.