February 23, 2006 § Leave a Comment
Just because nature seems pretty conquered at this point it doesn’t mean that humans have ceased to wish to conquer it — and, indeed, there are still some small corners of the world that have not been conquered, merely discovered. In fact, the further away from such possibilities, the more some people crave it, not only for those after firsthand rushes of adventure but also for the armchair enthusiasts, whose lives are far from the deadly challenges — and unlikely to get any closer. They rely on the possibly foolhardy determination of others.
Such is the case with Siula Grande Mountains of Peru and the two British mountaineers whose story of triumphant ascent — and horrifying descent — is detailed in the film “Touching the Void,” a hybrid of talking-head documentary and coolly dramatized re-enactment that will screen at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.
Kevin MacDonald’s film captures not only the intensity of almost losing one’s life in an extreme situation, but the clinical professionalism of those who would risk death just to be conquerors.
Mountaineers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates made the decision to scale the mountain in 1985 — it was, as they both say, where their climbing adventures had been leading up to. The 3 1/2 days they took to reach the top does seem like a ferociously difficult time, but it’s after accomplishing that task that everything really falls apart and Simpson, especially, finds himself walking a tightrope between the here and the hereafter.
At the same time, Yates grapples with the decisions made when instinct kicked in, as precise knowledge is lacking and survival could result in one man being branded an executioner.
Descending into conditions that are described as anything from “precarious” to “nightmarish,” the climbers find themselves in a situation that transcends the niche market of outdoor adventure. “Touching the Void” chronicles how humans arrive at profound moments of decision that come from analysis of a situation as much as they do fear when making extreme life or death decisions.
These are moments that can spill into normal life in situations involving disease or accidents, they aren’t just relegated to extreme adventure. Though many of us might never face that kind of turning point in their lives, it remains a possibility and, in that way, the situations faced by Simpson and Yates aren’t far removed from our own experience. Any person can relate.
“Touching the Void” is all the more remarkable for expressing such moments without descending into hysterics. Simpson and Yates are compelling and expressive in their narratives, but hindsight has given them the benefit of being able to relate their experience, rather than relive it, and MacDonald’s re-creations capture the same quality visually, never toying with the audience for cheap disaster thrills, but rather presenting the images with as much utilitarian skill as the words of the mountaineers — a rare achievement for such an intense recollection.
February 18, 2006 § Leave a Comment
A Williams College graduate has used her concern over surveillance and privacy as inspiration for art and citizen action. Tiffany Holmes, currently an assistant professor of art and technology at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, channeled her interest to create “Your Face is Safe With Me,” an installation that animates images pulled from closed circuit television networks within the gallery, mixed with images of surveillance sites from the Chicago area.
“What the viewer will see is the computer playing video games against itself for no purpose,” said Holmes, “and the surveillance images, which are fairly recognizable, come up from time to time in the games.”
Holmes incorporates real video games so that the surveillance images of the gallery patrons becomes fodder for Pac Man to consume or the very bricks that imprison the player in Breakout.
“The games parodied attempt to refer the proliferation of these closed-circuit television networks and their potential to create these enormous databases of images,” said Holmes.
Surveillance and privacy have become major issues since 9/11 and are currently making the headlines in the form of wire-tapping. The fervor toward protection from dangers both real and imagined has lead to a climate where some members of the government, as well as private citizens, argue that some loss of liberties is mandatory to security and safety — good news to companies in the surveillance industry, for whom mass suspicion is the best advertising they could get.
“We’re told repeatedly by the media to protect ourselves, that public safety is an enormous concern,” said Holmes, “and folks who are actually in the closed circuit television industry have benefited quite a bit by this because more and more people want to put in security systems in their homes or cameras at the workplace, cameras outside to monitor their establishment’s street access.”
Ironically, as technology gets better and allows for more precision surveillance, privacy faces more of a threat. Video resolution has improved over the years, allowing much clearer images, particularly at night — this, of course, makes any intrusion more crisp, which might be helpful to police in identifying suspects, but also raises possibilities for other sectors of society with a different sort of use in mind. Sometimes all it takes is one skilled computer hacker with the desire to circulate images online.
“I read in the New York Times, a group of parents who were suing their daughters’ high school because the school had an IP enabled surveillance camera in the locker room,” said Holmes. “People could actually stumble across them online if they punched in the proper Javaforce codes of that particular camera. The images were actually publicly available if you knew how to look for them.”
The future of airport security includes scanning technology that will display nude body silhouettes for the purpose of uncovering weapons, but there are many concerns about the images once they have been generated for official use. Recently, as part of Operation Disruption, the city of Chicago channeled money seized in drug-related arrests into a system of surveillance cameras in high crime zones. The cameras, which are equipped with sophisticated panning and zooming capabilities, are manned by retired police officers at a central location and have sparked a lot of heated conversation among citizens and public officials.
“The moderate view is that these cameras can perhaps be useful, but everyone’s just a little bit concerned about the footage,” said Holmes. “Is the footage deleted after a certain period of time? Who has access to it? Is it being duplicated, is it not? None of these questions in my mind have been really answered in a satisfactory way, there’s still a lot of mystery around how the system works. Who’s actually in charge of this? We know that the Chicago Police is in control, but it’s not clear where the footage goes, how it’s maintained, and where it’s archived.”
Holmes’ personal activism has resulted in her involvement with the group Open-Loop, largely comprised of a group of students who Holmes works with. Its purpose is to map all the public surveillance cameras in Chicago and make that information available online. The group updates their information every year and makes maps and images available on their Web site.
Holmes has approached her own work with the same set of concerns she directs to the surveillance networks she critiques—the images she takes in during an installation is grabbed and held by the hard drive for a total of ten minutes in order to be featured in the animation, and then is deleted.
Recently, Holmes has worked on a related project for the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, creating an animation that takes its data from the monitoring system in the building that is designed to measure and control water and energy use—information usually relegated to basements and boiler rooms, now put front and center in the building’s lobby, freely dispensing the levels of consumption by the workers in that space.
“It’s all about the hidden data that is within the bowels of our buildings that typically people are not really exposed to, they’re not really looking for that.” said Holmes.
February 16, 2006 § Leave a Comment
You don’t have to like dance to enjoy “Ballets Russes” but you do have to have a soft spot in your heart for drama. This sprawling retelling of the history, career and backstage stories of the legendary Ballets Russes in all its incarnations takes advantage of the still-living members of the troupe who, in the age-old tradition of stage, are more than ready to either bitch about or rhapsodize their contemporaries, as well as put on the self-deprecating charm in order to elevate their own stories.
Much of the film juxtaposes elderly talking heads against their beautiful and fluid youth and the effect is miraculous. The wealth of footage of the troupe’s performances reveal an electric and erotic stage presence that is matched by studied artistry of the presentation, which careens between the lofty and the experimental. The viewer is left with the impression that the world used to be different, less sprawling in its expertise, and, because of this, any creative endeavor was part journey of discovery not much different from the inventors and explorers in the tales of history — it’s only after World War II and their move to America that the sensibility switches to a more tame version of “Valley of the Dolls.”
Despite the parade of geniuses who served as creative and/or business guides that transformed dance, the heart of the Ballet Russes was the talent, which mostly amounted to a hearty mob of pubescent perfectionists and their rollicking journeys through Europe and South America, their ballet battles in England, and their train odyssey through America, where they picked up a few American Indian dancers in Oklahoma and, later, ran afoul of racial attitudes in the South.
One of the more peculiar subjects to be touched upon in the film — less as an examination and more as a recurring theme — is the systematic sexualizing of young girls and the guiding hands of male authority figures that become involved in that process. Can you name any other artistic field — OK, other than figure skating — that relies on the talent purposefully untouched by the decay of complete emotional complexity — or, for lack of a better word, virgins?
From its very inception, 14-year-old girls were being chosen as the centerpieces of Ballet Russes, which was seen as daring at first, but soon they became a standard part of the landscape.
This dynamic is made more bizarre by the fact that many of these girls are still around to be interviewed by the filmmakers and obviously attempt to duplicate the same coy innocence that once defined the movements of their body, but is now not much more than a twinkle in the eye meant to accent some good stories.
Which is not to say that these women are the shells of the virgins they once were — quite the contrary. Though the natural reaction is to pity them because they are certainly not as beautiful or graceful as they once were, it is apparent that these qualities are still very much inside even as their bodies cannot reflect them as profoundly.
February 2, 2006 § Leave a Comment
Werner Herzog’s film “White Diamond” is one more chapter in the filmmaker’s ongoing investigation of single-minded, seemingly im-possible dreams and the people who have them. Graham Dorrington wanted to be an astronaut and has night dreams of floating in the air. He believes his dreams can come true through feats of engineering and design: His goal is to perfect the zeppelin. Dorrington has created a small-scale version of his technology that he plans to use to film uncharted parts of the Amazon.
Dreaming of flying is an obvious enough metaphor — it’s the dream of freedom that anyone might have. For Dorrington, it seems to be the dream of breaking free of the shackles of science and structure, the dream of making dreams work regardless of the reality around him.
If reality is his claustrophobic lab in England, the rainforest presents a dreamland where the scientific hopes to take on mystical proportions, where the airship becomes as much a part of the landscape as the grand waterfall nearby — Kaieteur which, at four times the height of Niagara Falls, is accompanied by generations of legends.
The waterfall’s majesty is breathtaking, with the waters that spill over taking a fiery crimson hew, often filmed with groups of birds in free flight using it as a vivid backdrop for the canvas of their flight.
In the beginning of the film, Herzog goes over the history of aviation, with an accent on the big dreams and failures and how one field — contrary to the flow of history and science — drifted away from airplanes and toward airships. As we all know, the Hindenberg put an end to any dreams of zeppelins littering the skies of the world. Dorrington has his own Hindenberg, an accident with a previous test airship that resulted in the death of a documentary filmmaker whose talent and bravery are the obvious inspiration for Dorrington carrying on.
In one of the various thematic threads that twist through the film, it becomes apparent that Dorrington refuses to let his own disaster dictate the future of his work and dreams. On the small shoulders of this one man lies a massive effort to reclaim the shame that history has brought to the airship.
At the center of the film is a local man, Mark Anthony, on whom Herzog casts Dorrington’s dreams as a man dreaming of flight. Anthony, it seems, is everything Dorrington wishes he could be, an unschooled man of intuition who wanders free in the world. Despite this air, the thing the two men share is that desire to float, and their desires become twin destinies.
Under Herzog’s guidance, this story becomes a subtle slice of poetry, not as in your face as “Grizzly Man” or “My Best Fiend.” The darkness here is gentle and any madness comes off as determined and brave. Herzog manages to capture not only the depths of Dorrington’s mission, but also the exotic world around his camp, the place he has chosen to achieve his dream, mixing it all up into a complicated look at the way mind and world fit together with just the right meaning.