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Atlanta Art Papers, by Charles Lyman


In the late 1880's, Louis Lumiere invented one of the world's first movie cameras and took a picture of a train arriving at a railway platform. Every filmmaker knows that when the film was first shown, the spectators in the front seats panicked and jumped for fear that the image of the train would run them down. Their personal sense of space had been invaded by an illusion. The idea of such complete contact between the audience and the art has fascinated filmmakers ever since. The idea is to break down the viewer's sense of detachment, and involve him completely in the world represented on the screen.

The present tradition of filmmaking and showing has evolved along lines already proven effective in the dramatic theatre. Most films are shown on a fixed screen on a proscenium, in front of an audience sitting in a darkened room facing forward. The audience is expected to remain quiet and unmoving throughout the performance (except for laugher).

But, concurrent with this steady and successful development of that tradition, has been an experimental cinema which seeks to expand beyond the original 3:4 screen size ratio to a totally involving, environmental image. The shared characteristic of all these attempts has been to make the process of watching a film more like the physical process of seeing, where the viewer is surrounded on all sides by three dimensional reality, and must constantly make choices as to what to watch next. There have been many attempts to expand the screen and image to fill the peripheral vision of the spectator. Abel Gance began working with three screen poly-vision in the 1920's, and similar ideas have been explored through Cinerama and the wide screen presentations common today, to the 360 degree movie pavilions seen at world's fairs or Disneyland. There has been interesting work done with three dimensional images, and we may have holographic moving images in the not too distant future. A detailed discussion of these works is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that there have been at least as many disappointments as successes, and that it is difficult to get beneath the showy spectacle of multi-screen presentations to the human values which are the heart and purpose of art.

My theory is that this is chiefly the result of a failure to recognize that films designed for a two dimensional screen in front of the audience are a total different medium that films designed for projection around the audience. The single, frontally located screen is a window through which one views a play on reality. The traditional forms of the dramatic theatre - plot, structure, dialogue, personal identification with a character - can all apply to what goes on in that window. Multiple images, on the other hand, imply a surrounding space defined by light, and the effect of that space on the viewer is better understood by comparing it to architecture than to traditional film.

Projected space, like architectural space, takes effect on the mental and bodily sense of location, balance, and direction. It tends to be abstract rather than specific and informational, and appeals to the subconscious and the emotions as much as the rational intellect. The sense of space involves the feeling of being lost and found, directed or directionless, balanced or dizzy, sheltered or exposed. These sensations are primal, and like territorial imperative, are felt by most animals. In addition, there are the specifically human feelings of sanctified and taboo space, chaotic and calm space, clean and dirty space, beautiful and ugly space, and so on.

The raw material, the empty canvas of space created by light is a dark void. Darkness is most readily controlled, and therefore performances are most commercially feasible, indoors. But being indoors will always imply shelter, security, and an ordered environment. I am interested in the ancient and now largely subconscious need to locate oneself in outdoor space, to establish a relationship with the surrounding landscape, the sky and the elements, the movement of the sun and stars. The need is subconscious in most modern people, because the majority of the world's population lives in urban spaces which are almost entirely man made. These people are protected from the elements, shut off by atmospheric conditions from the stars, and largely independent of day and night because of artificial light. They navigate the landscape using roads and signs and when they are lost, they can refer to maps which not only show them where to go, but can also account for who owns every yard of earth along the way. They are connected to a system of landmarks, and the grid of imaginary lines which civilization has laid over the earth, and except under unusual emergency conditions, are never lost in a landscape space in the desperate and dangerous sense that early man became lost. Nevertheless, those modern men who have missed their bearings in an ocean fog, or endured the sensory deprivation of a totally dark and silent space, can testify that the instinctive terror of being exposed and lost still exists.

Five years ago I moved my family from Chicago to a farm in the countryside of central Florida. Almost immediately I began building a permanent structure which would allow for experiments with light created space in an outdoor landscape. This construction has developed into a complex of platforms and towers on the crest of a hill in a tropical landscape. The structure and the beams of light and images which animate it have become a reflection of my own desire to come to grips with a new landscape. As I have designed and built, I have come to feel a profound link with the landscape art of prehistoric man.

It is clear that spatial location was of such importance to prehistoric man that mental mapping became involved with and often indistinguishable from cosmology and religion. Probably the details of calendar making, mapping, and the establishment of a point from which all other points and directions were measured were mysteries understood and exploited by priests and shamans. Presumably it was these savants who organized the construction of extraordinary monuments, like Stonehenge or Carnac, where rites could be celebrated outdoors by crowds of people. We know nothing of the rites, but it is clear that the monuments are intended to celebrate a way of seeing, of orienting men in space, time and landscape. For example, the Nazca lines of Peru and the white horse of Uffington, England, are enormous, outdoor line sculptures whose areas cover square miles. Their outlines are cut into the landscape with ditches and mounds, and their size and scale are such that they can be seen only from hilltops miles away, or better yet, from the air.

These lines are the work of people who navigated their landscape using a system of trails and landmarks, supplemented wherever possible with a view from a high place. Some otherwise undifferentiated landmarks might be specially marked. These landmarks might also serve as personal or tribal boundaries. There is a quantum leap of imagination between this sort of understanding of space, which develops sequentially in the course of travel from one spot to the next, and the sort of god-like overview implied in mapping technique, where the landscape is miniaturized and described with symbols. A similar leap of the imagination occurred to the Nascar builders, who had to imagine what their work would look like from the air. Their lines might be thought of as both the brand which distinguished their territorial space from other men's, and as a signal or offering to the heaven dwelling gods, who alone were in a position to see them completely. If there were ceremonies associated with them they probably involved the participants walking along the lines, as one would a hunting path, redefining and identifying the outline. The White Horse of Uffington has been scoured in a cleaning ceremony every few years for thousands of years.

The hill figures imply a viewpoint, an orientation to the landscape on which they are etched. So do the standing menhirs (rocks) of Carnal in Southern France. There enormous boulders have been set up in parallel row across a mile and a half of rolling countryside. These rows become sightlines through the landscape.

For the viewer who stands between them, they form perspective lines (like the disappearing railroad track) which allow a judgment of distance. In this, in the strobing or marching men's effect on the viewer who walks past successive men hits, and in the regular shadows formed by the moving sun striking the rows obliquely, Carnak is the remote ancestor of the colonnade. Its ceremonial use was presumably as a processional, to be walked or paraded through. One end probably provided its climax and conclusion.

Carnak and the Nazca lines provide spatial location by means of landmarks and sightlines. Another leap of imagination is necessary for orientations in wastes without landmarks, such as the ocean, plains, or deserts, particularly at night. This requires sights of the sun and stars, Next in complexity is an understanding of solar time itself, and the development of a calendar, thus providing self-location in both time and space. Stonehenge, on the Salisbury plain in England, is precisely located in its landscape according to the movement of celestial bodies and the passage of calendar time. It consists of several concentric circles of huge, standing stones. These stones and the gaps between them coordinate to define a series of views and sightlines of the surrounding landscape for the viewer. The stones are also arranged so that the sun and moon rise over or between them at certain times of the year. When the sun rises on a sightline directly over the "heel stone," for example, it signals the beginning of the summer solstice. Recent research using computer processed data has determined that the stones are also used to locate stars in the night sky.

The awesome power of these ancient monuments, still potent after thousands of years, was always on my mind as I began construction of my own backyard monolith. I wanted a structure which was non-utilitarian, which did not provide shelter except in the spiritual sense, which embraced and interlocked with the landscape. Like the ancient ceremony centers, it was to be a place for the celebration of and event by a large group of people. It was to establish this group in relation to the landscape around it and the sky above it. It was to be a landmark in space and a reference point in time. Up to this time my work in film and film events had been fragile, portable and ephemeral. Here I sought permanence, and chose telephone poles and cypress timbers mounted in cement as materials. I wanted the sheer magnitude of the structure to speak for the human effort and commitment involved in its making.

View from experimental structure showing landscape. Photo: Lyman.

The structure is pentagonal in shape, and provides a series of framed perspectives of the surrounding landscape through 360 degrees. Like Stonehenge or the Nazca lines, its pattern is best understood from the air, a view I have never had and can only visualize. Suspended from the telephone poles which mark the corners on the pentagon are platforms between four and seven feet from the ground. One section of platform rises twenty-five feet above the ground. There is a view of the surrounding countryside for miles in all directions. During the daylight hours, one can sit and sun and watch the activity of the farm and landscape framed between the uprights of the pentagon. A perspective is created in each of these frames by wires which stretch in a V from the tops of the telephone poles to a single point at a tree or a pole in the landscape. The shadows of the standing poles cross the face of the platform like the shadow cast by the blade of a sundial. The performance itself does not begin until the sun begins to set and the details of the landscape are blurred and then lost in darkness. When the warm void of night closes around the audience, and shrinks the sense of landscape space to a personal cocoon of darkness, I am free to recreate space with light. He did the same thing in the first book of Genesis.

The present performance, which I call Wet Weather, uses several varieties of light which are easiest to discuss separately. The first of these is the point source, which in its simplest application is static and single; and, in its most complex, is multiple and moving. An open fire is a point source of light, and makes the most primal and basic light created space. If a campfire or a bonfire, it creates a warm and sheltering sphere which keeps the darkness at bay. If a signal beacon it attracts the eye and establishes depth and direction in the void. Open fire is our closest link with the night ceremonies of the stone age. Wet Weather begins with the lighting of a bonfire on the edge of a reflecting pond a quarter mile from the tower. Late in the performance certain trees and objects in the landscape are briefly lit (electrically).

An extension of point source of light are multiple point sources, such as torches held or swung by moving people. Performances in a night landscape often take the form of processions, like the catholic processions of the middle ages. Moving lights also produce moving shadows, and Carnac and Stonehenge by torchlight must be awesome. Thanks to the image retaining qualities of the eye, very rapidly moving point sources, alike a firebrand whirled overhead, become blurred streaks. An example of streaking occurs in the use of fireworks to expand and animate a night sky.

A second type of light is the projected beam. To make the beam visible, the light source must be focused and powerful, and the air must contain a certain amount of suspended particles to reflect it. A routine outdoor use of the beam is the aircraft searchlight, which traditionally points skyward outside a Hollywood movie opening. There it is used a lighthouse, to attract attention to a specific point in space. Several beams, projected so that they meet overhead, create an extraordinary sense of depth in space. This was a common spectacle during the world wars, when several searchlights of a defending city converged on an attacking aircraft overhead. The effect was consciously exploited when Rudolph Speer, Hitler's architect, placed Luftwaffe searchlights in a ring around the Nuremburg stadium. At the height of the Nazi celebrations of 1936, all the searchlights were turned on simultaneously to meet overhead in what observers called a cathedral of light. Anthony McCall's work is an example of the present day use of the beam. He develops three dimensional volumes within the beam of a 16mm movie projector. The volumes change in time depending on the image projected, which is geometric and non-representational.

The beams which appear around the platform in Wet Weather are projected through an extremely fine mist. This falls from rows of mist nozzles which are suspended the length of three sides of the Pentagon. The inspiration for this comes directly from the environment itself, which is often covered by ground fog at night. Then the powerful ground lights of surrounding farms throw beams, shaped by trees silhouetted against them, high in the air. For and mist will also reflect an image, which is best seen when the spectator looks directly through it toward the source of projected light. The result is a multi-level, almost three dimensional image. This is the result of looking at light reflected from water droplets both above and behind the normal plane of focus of the projected image. Surprisingly, this is a technique know in Paris before the invention of motion pictures. Performances were held in a crypt filled with smoke, and projection was with a magic lantern. Recent work with this sort of image has been done by Stan Vanderbeek, who projects on steam, and by the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT, under the direction of Otto Piene.

Night Performance of Wet Weather. Photo: Lyman.

Projected image is the third use of space creating light on the platform. Five projectors are used during a performance. One of these projects a moving image from under the platform towards a screen standing six feet off the ground about thirty-five feet from the platform. This screen is exactly proportional to a 16mm frame, so that the image appears to hang in the darkness without visible support, like a window to another world. This is the only sharp, normal image in the performance, and serves as a running commentary and interpretation of all concurrent events. It is also the only projection away from the audience. Each of the other projectors are located in weather-proof boxes in the landscape, and throw their images toward the side of the pentagon they face. The beam of the projector fits within the perspective triangle formed by the wires (already mentioned) running from the tops of the telephone pole into the landscape. The image is seen both within the mist and on sails of nylon netting which hang from wires running at both right angles and parallel to the beam. To summarize, the pentagon is surrounded on three sides by images projected on mist and netting. The fourth image, on the traditional two dimensional screen in the field itself, comments on the other three. The eye is drawn from these to the more remote depths of the landscape by point source lights and fires.

All these projections are controlled with a crew of three or four and an electronic control center on the platform itself. Nevertheless, the production is subject to a dozen different variables, including the wind and weather, the hour of sunset and the phase of the moon, and no two performances are the same. When a strong wind blows, the drifting mist and the billowing netting sails make a performances as violent, exhilarating, and unpredictable as sailing a full rigged ship through a storm. The audience exposed to all this has an experience which cannot be duplicated seated indoors, facing a stage and screen. (The viewer is at liberty to move, to watch a performance from platform or from the landscape at any distance from the platform. They are outdoors and unsheltered, and may get wet, struggle for a view or stumble over cow pies in the dark. They can participate in the performance in any way they wish, from dancing to stepping into the projector beam.) In the traditional film performance, the aim is to transport the viewer out of his self conscious body, to make him all eyes, ears and imagination.

Image formed on mist during performance of Wet Weather. Photo: Lyman

The aim here is a heightened consciousness of both mind and body and the relationship of both to the immediate and the cosmic environment. In particular, the sense of being part of a crowd sharing a similar, spiritual experience is as important here as it was at Stonehenge.

The sense of being part of a primal ritual is heightened by the sound track of Wet Weather. This is produced on four different speakers driven by a multi-track tape recorder. Three speakers are located 100, 50 and 20 feet from the platform, and a fourth is behind it. Thus sounds like the chanting of marching men can shift from speaker to speaker and appear to advance up the hill and past the platform. The sound track, which is the joint work of John Mizelle of Oberlin College and myself, begins by echoing the actual sounds of a night in Florida - (frogs, crickets, katydids, cattle, etc.). These grow in complexity through electronic manipulation until they culminate in tribal chanting. Next are trumpets and gongs, more and wilder singings, and sounds of outdoor celebration. The performance culminates in a violent thunderstorm and faces to an end with the sound of running water and the slow dripping of a sodden forest.

The images of Wet Weather are derived from the immediate environment, and the relationship of myself and my family to it. The performance begins with each bay of the pentagon showing images shot from the position, at different times of the day and year. It proceeds with special events like the movement of the farm animals around the landscape. During this sequence the horses are fed in the beam of the projector, so that their moving shadows are thrown on the mist and the screens with their images. Next is a series of my own hands measuring, grasping, gesturing toward the landscape. Here the nylon netting hung at right angles to the pentagon side, and in the projector beam, is brought into play. The image of a reaching hand is projected along the whole 100 foot length of the curtain, and seems like the Nazca hand to project into and touch the landscape. There follows a series of outdoor celebrations and bonfires. Next are images of my family at work on the farm, of my wife's pregnancy, and the birth of our first son. His progress from the dark security of the womb through the trauma of birth and light to an active exploration and definition of his own space becomes a metaphor for the changing light and space of Wet Weather.

The womb is a dark confinements, and its inhabitant does not feel cold or want or fear. Some primal force drives us from its perfect security into that "old chaos of the sun" which is the world. There we learn to invest a body, and define, and control even own our space. The need for defined and secure space is so vital that most children fear the loss of reference points that comes with silence and darkness, with sensory deprivation. As adults we become increasingly involved with the secure space of house and neighborhood, with job and schedule. As we descend into senility, the memory of old landmarks and reference points fades and becomes uncertain. Old people often become like infants, unknowing and uncaring about "where they are". Death can be thought of as the total abandonment of life's space, and people who have been on the point of dying, and brought back to life, speak of a sense of leaving the body and floating in detached security above it. Creating with an architecture and landscape of light seems to expose and celebrate a subconscious awareness of these matters. My own work is at an experimental, but extremely exciting stage.

Charles Lyman teaches film at the University of South Florida.