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Correspondence: Ben Mendelsohn talks to filmmakers Peter Bo Rappmund and Hunter Snyder about contemporary landscape cinema and the politics of infrastructure

Tue, Jul 1, 2014 at 9:28 PM

From:            Ben Mendelsohn
To:            Peter Bo Rappmund, Hunter Snyder

Hi Peter, Hi Hunter-

If you haven’t met before, let me introduce you. At the “Lines & Nodes” screening series in September, we'll be showing a film by each of you and I'd love to have you engage in an open-ended dialogue about your work.

Hunter’s short observational video, “Bridge Tender”, documents a manually operated swing bridge in Maine as it opens and closes, which he captures as a mundane yet delightful transportation ritual. Peter’s hyperreal travelogue along the US-Mexico border, “Tectonics”, uses precise intervals of still photography to capture the remarkable variety of borderlands, from high-tech fortress to dilapidated irrigation ditch.

I see these films as complementary investigations of the symbolic, technological, and bodily investments that we make in various infrastructural landscapes. While your styles are quite different, there is a tension in both films between technical or formal precision and a deep sense of openness and curiosity.

Feel free to discuss whatever comes to mind. But I’m particularly curious to hear about the role of duration/interval in your films, how you both approach camera positioning and staking out while you’re in the field, and any thoughts on the larger cinematic/photographic interest in landscape and infrastructure that seems to be taking hold these days.

Looking forward,

Ben

bridgetender.jpg

 

tectonics.jpg



Wed, Jul 9, 2014 at 7:19 PM

From:            Peter Bo Rappmund
To:             Hunter Snyder, Ben Mendelsohn

Hi all- good to hear from you, Ben, and thanks for the thoughtful questions.

I enjoyed your piece Hunter, and I'm curious to learn more about how you came to make a project about this bridge.

I also appreciated you not warp stabilizing those two jolts in your film. Those were the moments that made the video for me. There was a roughness I wasn't expecting, and that tied in wonderfully with the subject matter while also showing off some of the underappreciated charms of the medium (I can't imagine it would have been nearly as jarring on film). I also thought the bilateral composition in time symmetry, that play on déjà vu, was compelling and relevant.

Talk again soon,

Peter



Sun, Jul 20, 2014 at 11:51 AM

From:            Hunter Snyder
To:            Peter Bo Rappmund, Ben Mendelsohn

Hi all,

Thanks for your comments, Peter -- I had the chance to watch Tectonics last night and I’m curious to hear you talk about it.

I suppose I am interested in work and the intersections of the human and built environment, but to be fair, while living in Midcoast Maine in 2013, I was invited to a dinner party during which I sat across from an elderly woman who, upon mentioning my interests, said that I ought to go and see 'the marvelous swing bridge in Boothbay.' So I did, and the film is the result.

The jolts that the camera records occur when the span of the bridge comes off and on the wedges that lock it into place. Despite the bridge being 83 years old, the span swings extremely smoothly, except for the precise moment when the span slips off the wedges, breaking the connection between the mainland and the island.

But let’s talk about Tectonics. I really appreciate the choices you make regarding the frame rate, and that strong tension between images that seem to be stuck somewhere between time-lapse and real-time. It reminds me of the frame rates found in surveillance cameras, especially during the era of analog, interlaced surveillance cameras. I believe those cameras recorded at one or five frames per second, to allow security personnel to interpret the images without the smearing effects that occur when one pauses interlaced video. In the case of border-crossings, that observation is crucial. And in the case of encountering the border throughout your film, it seems germane for having “a good look at the area.” But what were the reasons for choosing those frame rates at times?

And to turn the genesis question back to you, what were your motivations for making Tectonics?

Best,

Hunter



Tue, Jul 22, 2014 at 2:26 PM

From:             Peter Bo Rappmund
To:            Hunter Snyder, Ben Mendelsohn

Ben, Hunter: thanks for all the insightful comments. In regards to the frame rate for Tectonics, this is where I like to draw a distinction between my work and the work of time-lapse artists.

The strengths of time-lapse, being able to reveal the unknown, have been reduced to unveiling too many of the same unknowns. Where a typical time-lapse artist would go out and blindly collect thousands of photos of a single shot, and then crush these together for a 10 second clip, my approach is almost the exact opposite. On location, I usually spend a good amount of time just watching and listening before I take out my camera. By that point, I already know some of the things that I would like to commit to in the image and in sound. Will I loop a sequence? What is moving and not moving in frame? Beyond what I see and hear, what/how do I feel? I take notes, and record what I have experienced, and even though my recording devices will never be able to capture completely what it is like in a location, and although they are imperfect tools at best, I still feel it is worthwhile to work as diversely and astutely as possible in perceiving, and then report back what I've noticed.

Those frame rates you asked about are something that I am completely consumed with as I am shooting in the field -- what speed I should capture at -- but also again in the studio -- what duration per image to compile at. This is not to make a grand gesture or temporal smudge, like time-lapse, but rather, to construct with purpose, sculpturally and architecturally, from frame to frame. Because I am not tied to seeking exacting facsimile via 24/30/60 frames per second, I interfere more in the process, and each image sequence comes to better reflect my experience. Manipulating the framerates can also highlight differences between the static and moving components in the frame.

The rhythms of life that occur just off frame can be incorporated into my image as well -- a hectic environment may call for a faster frame rate to reflect this. Too hectic, where the image would only be noise, and I may slow things down in hopes of drawing attention to the minor occurrences that are hidden in the chaos. Of course, these sorts of things can be attempted through prolonged duration as well, although with the more proto-cinema-like technique I employ, I believe it is easier to be concerned with kairos in service of chronos, rather than the other way around.

In Tectonics, surveillance was certainly on my mind, as I was looking to turn my camera back onto the border's cameras. In person, indicators of the frontier are often absent, especially in some of its more arbitrarily drawn areas, and so it was important to me to be able to show this by having a fluid image. When a fence was present, it was striking in its inertia, so this stillness would be paired to a beating, usually slower, of surrounding activity. Too fast, and things like people took on the characteristics of being ant-like, and too slow, the moving components would disappear along with the unmoving qualities of the fence.



Wed, July 23, 2014 at 8:15 AM

From:            Ben Mendelsohn
To:            Hunter Snyder, Peter Bo Rappmund

Peter, when I saw your film about Nebraska’s borders, Vulgar Fractions, at Anthology earlier this year, you talked a lot about how you felt in the field, and wanting to do your best to capture the essence of the emotions you experienced. You jokingly apologized for sounding “new agey,” but the almost mystical relationship with place is really palpable, and of course in no need of apology. For example, in titling your film about the LA River, Psychohydrography, it seems you are really emphasizing these phenomenological dimensions of site exploration.

This seems in contrast to a great deal of contemporary landscape cinema, which is often guided by what Shannon Mattern calls the “aesthetics of measurement” — a kind of limited, rigidly structured sampling. That approach fascinates me too, but do you see yourself in conversation with it? Are you addressing those less overtly subjective approaches to landscape, making the case for embodied feeling?



Wed., July 23, 2014 at 12:11 PM

From:             Peter Bo Rappmund
To:            Hunter Snyder, Ben Mendelsohn



Absolutely. My process actively seeks to breach certain aesthetics, but also attempts to reach a similar truth. Both ends of the observational spectrum — different approaches, although neither should be characterized as more or less subjective than the other — should inquire into how postulation occurs for both artist and audience after evidence is collected and presented back from the field. In my own work, I put front and center an argument for the embodiment of sensation and its entanglement with place. I think in the necessarily conservative vocabulary of “aesthetics of measurement” work, it is often difficult to make a seat for this philosophy, but I try to challenge it at least in practice.



Fri., July 25, 2014 at 8:08 AM

From:             Ben Mendelsohn
To:            Peter Bo Rappmund, Hunter Snyder

I wanted to also ask you both to reflect on the politics of your films, broadly conceived. Something that strikes me in Hunter’s anecdote about the dinner party and his companion tipping him off to the swing bridge, is the way in which both of your films have a kind of folksiness, which I don't mean pejoratively. I find that anecdote  fascinating — that Hunter found the site word of mouth, and that it’s also a site of gleeful fascination for locals.

Perhaps there is a tension in your films between the sort of intellectual or exhibition context of these works and their embeddedness in landscapes of mundane experience and wide public interest. I’m wondering if either of you can speak to the collective mythologies you both see yourselves exploring.

Cheers,

Ben



Fri., July 25, 2014 at 12:27 PM

From:             Peter Bo Rappmund
To:            Ben Mendelsohn, Hunter Snyder

I live quite close to the border, and when media rhetoric seemed to be hitting new highs in paranoia around '07, I decided I would start a project on the border. I had been back and forth many times before, but it finally struck me to do a piece on just the border infrastructure when I was standing on a beach near Tijuana, and watching them construct a new portion of the fence into the ocean. I had been reading Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 and already focusing more and more on linear systems in the built environment.



Sat., July 26, 2014 at 11:02 AM

From:             Hunter Snyder
To:            Ben Mendelsohn, Peter Bo Rappmund

Anecdotally, on several occasions I’ve heard folks say that Maine manages to hold onto 'the good things’, which I ignorantly interpret as having something to do with reminiscence, and how Maine manages to have so much of 'the old, 'good things' left around. Maine has a terrific industrial history, from shipbuilding and mining, to other areas such as agriculture and of course commercial fishing. An extension of that history includes pieces of infrastructure like this bridge, which appear novel today when most swing bridges are actuated with powerful electric solenoids or hydraulics, or marine or road traffic is rerouted to avoid having to employ a human to open a bridge — no less manually — like the one in the film.

So to respond, yes, there may be something deeper to the film’s origins than merely the woman's suggestion to see the swing bridge opening with my own eyes. Some of that assumed deeper meaning might have to do with our notions of performance and reminiscence. Folks (intellectuals included) talk of technology 'changing the world' around us, but in the case of Maine, much of the infrastructural technology remains the same, and I suppose coming to grips with that supposed lack of change begs some scrutiny. The bridge tender in the film finds herself part of our collective act of reconciling the past with the present through our experience of the bridge. And the film does seek to make a depiction — or performance — of that act of reconciliation.



Mon., August 4, 2014 at 9:02 PM

From:             Ben Mendelsohn
To:            Hunter Snyder, Peter Bo Rappmund

That’s a really interesting take, that there’s this sort of temporal disjuncture happening, with your bridge as a lingering artifact of a previous era that is still being performed. And it is a testament to infrastructural fixity — the continuities or tailings, which are often effaced by rhetorics of technological progress and newness.

Something else I'd still be interested in having you both address is the work that goes into staking out camera positions. Both your films have framings that feel both intuitive and exceptionally precise. How did you approach where to plant your feet?



Tues., August 5, 2014 at 7:30 AM

From: Hunter Snyder
To: Ben Mendelsohn, Peter Bo Rappmund

Hey Ben,

The position of the camera was influenced by limitations of safety. Only trained Maine DOT employees are permitted on the span of the bridge when it is open. The camera was left unmanned during the recording, which required everything to be set in a way that would permit for acceptable exposure and balanced audio gain throughout the sequence.

Because the bridge is the vein for island vehicles, there is absolutely no time to set up the camera and wait for a boat to come along. Boats request openings only at high tide, and even during the summer high season, the tender is lucky to open the bridge once a day. The tender and I would wait in the shack until someone hollered for an opening through the VHF radio. In the longest shot of the film, the camera and audio setup are situated about 1.5 feet from the edge of the span. Running off of the span, I would turn back at the setup and think twice about whether I was truly willing to take a wider shot at the price of the camera potentially tipping off the edge of the span and into the water; if the span gets stuck on the wedges, the bridge shakes violently.

Hunter



Tues., August 5, 2014 at 1:56 PM

From:             Peter Bo Rappmund
To:            Hunter Snyder, Ben Mendelsohn

Concerning staking out- my original plan was to use a mini-dolly with horizontal movement always moving east to west along the border. Then, by movement within frame alone, we would be able to tell what side of the border we were on. This was impossible though as the border security (U.S. side only — very lax on the Mexico side) would always harass me within moments of setting up. I didn't feel like I had to settle for a static camera in the end though, as there are so many other things I can accomplish, as I mentioned earlier, by focusing on the unmoving. (also not being so explicit on what side we are on adds another aspect to the work).



Sat., August 9, 2014, at 10:54 AM

From:             Ben Mendelsohn
To:            Peter Bo Rappmund, Hunter Snyder

Ah, border patrol… Thanks again to both of you for taking the time to chat. If I could wrap us up — one of the implicit questions of “Lines and Nodes,” is why so many artists, filmmakers, and researchers have taken to similar objects of inquiry: infrastructure, anthropogenic landscapes, geographically dispersed technical systems, and so on. Do either of you have any thoughts on these larger conversations or trends? Do you see your work as part of them, or embedded in different traditions?



Tues,. August 12, 2014 at 3:06 PM

From:             Peter Bo Rappmund
To:            Ben Mendelsohn, Hunter Snyder

This is a great, but tough question as I feel there are so many different reasons. Although I gather that a lot of people curious about those topics, including myself, are reacting to currents in our society, and have found infrastructure as a sort of medium that can not only address present-day concerns, but also convey the enigma of humanity. That's because infrastructure is nearly ubiquitous, seemingly homogenous, and often hidden, until that is, you get to know it better. For me, the interest is as simple as making sense of a confusing world, looking behind the scenes and figuring out how and why things work the way they do. At the same time, I feel that systems in general mirror a larger idea of existence, and there is a poetry to them that is elegant, concise, and can function with or without metaphor. But I find the key is their perspicuous, and learnable nature, as it seems the closer we get to describing that perfectly, the more mysterious and fascinating life reveals itself to be.



Lines & Nodes: Media, Infrastructure, and Aesthetics is a symposium and screening series that brings together artists and scholars to examine the mediated and aesthetic dimensions of extraction and infrastructure. The symposium will take place on Friday, September 19, 2014, at New York University and the screening series runs from September 19th to 21st at Anthology Film Archives. www.linesandnodes.com

Contributors

Peter Bo Rappmund

PETER BO RAPPMUND is a California-based artist whose practice relies on understanding both empirical and metaphysical properties of the built environment. He has exhibited his films, photographs, sound installations and maps at a variety of venues, including MoMA; Anthology Film Archives; National Maritime Museum, London; REDCAT; and the Locarno, New York, Vienna, Ann Arbor, and Hong Kong International Film Festivals.

Hunter Snyder

HUNTER SNYDER is a filmmaker and scholar whose work seeks to agitate the representational relationships between land and labor. As Greenland's first Fulbright fellow, and as a National Geographic Young Explorer, his work explores how Inuit balance hunting and fishing practices amid the prospects of large-scale mining.

Ben Mendelsohn

BEN MENDELSOHN is a PhD student in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University where he focuses on environment, infrastructure, and experimental film. He is currently developing a dissertation project and series of video essays about human earthmoving and the Anthropocene.

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