What the ocean saw: David Gatten's films at NCSU | Arts

What the ocean saw: David Gatten's films at NCSU



N.C. State University
Caldwell Hall G107, 2221 Hillsborough St.
Fri., Feb. 15, 5-7:30 p.m.

This is the true story of how the ocean made a movie.

To be more precise, filmmaker David Gatten collaborated on a movie with the Atlantic Ocean, where the Edisto River empties its freshwater into the ocean’s salt along the South Carolina coast. Gatten put unexposed 16mm film stock into a crab trap, tied the ends of a 50-foot rope to the trap and his ankle, and dropped it into the water.

from How to Conduct a Love Affair
 (2007), David Gatten
After a while, he pulled it out and printed it. He didn’t develop it. He didn’t record sound, leaving the optical sound strip on the film to the mercy of the underwater elements. Basically he just put it in a projector. That’s What the Water Said.

“The ocean made the movie,” Gatten says. “The exposure, the processing, the chemistry, the physical interaction—everything—was entirely the ocean. I didn’t do anything other than decide how long it should be in the water, at high tide, ebb tide, low tide. And how much film I was going to put in. The ocean and crabs decided how much film I was going to get back. They did the editing. They did the sound. I was the producer.”

Gatten made three such films in 1998, returning to the South Carolina coast in 2007 to make three more. This more recent set, along with five other 16-mm films from his acclaimed career, will be screened in a mini-retrospective on Friday evening at N.C. State.

It’s a rare chance to see the work of one of the country’s foremost experimental filmmakers with Gatten at the projector’s controls. In his omnipresent overalls, he’ll introduce the films, something he doesn’t often get to do but considers an integral part of the screening. Neither dramatic nor scripted nor off-the-cuff, he nonetheless sets the films up with a precise, evocative monologue before bringing the screen to life an exact beat after he stops talking. A screening is a performance, to his mind.

Gatten’s a heavy hitter, but in a league that doesn’t play on Netflix and YouTube. A Film Comment critics’ poll listed him among the top 10 avant-garde filmmakers at the dawn of this millennium. He’s a Guggenheim fellow and shows work in Whitney Biennials, as well as many museums and film festivals of note. His nearly three-hour digital video work, The Extravagant Shadows, premiered at the 50th annual New York Film Festival last fall.

Currently an artist-in-residence at Duke’s Program in Arts of the Moving Image, Gatten has been working with students in the MFA program in experimental documentary arts, now in its second year.

What the Water Said, in this realm, is considered the most literal documentary film or representational art possible, recalling Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs (the word “photograph” meaning “light writing,” after all) made not with a camera but by submerging film in a tank of water through which a massive electrical charge is passed.

film strip from What the Water Said: 4-6 (2007), David Gatten
Lowering a camera and microphone into the ocean would record footage of the ocean, but with the mediation of the filmmaker’s hand in choices of camera, film stock, development, editing and so forth. Gatten forgoes these choices, leaving the mark-making to reality itself, as a way of implicating the conventions we’ve bundled and named as representational art.

Refuting those photographic conventions, Gatten’s primarily structuralist concerns are with film’s materiality and textuality, which might sound like it could make for cold, academic viewing. Some structural films are, frankly, more interesting to read about than to watch. But even though several of the other films he’s screening at NCSU show much more text than image onscreen, Gatten accomplishes deeply personal and emotional statements.

He made Film for Invisible Ink, case no. 323: ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (2010) as his wedding vows. Not to project while he said his vows—the film was his vows. It’s as unconventional an epithalamium as you’ll ever see, but powerfully sincere and substantial.

When they’re not teaching at Duke, Gatten and his wife, the filmmaker and writer Erin Espelie (her "Silent Springs," a meditation upon Rachel Carson's work, screened at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival last year), live in a pair of joined cabins outside a tiny mining town (population: “about 47”) in Four Mile Canyon in Colorado. Initially, they considered a traditional wedding with guests and a cake and so forth. But in Colorado, if you are a man and a woman, you can legally marry merely by saying “we’re married,” signing a certificate, and mailing it in to the state. Neither witness nor licensed official are required. The intimacy of this option appealed to Gatten and Espelie, so they made their 2010 ceremony their own.

“We decided that on the 23rd of July, we would walk down the road to the old church at midnight and say our vows to each other. And we would be married and then we would get on a plane and fly to Venice and be on a sailboat. So we prepared our vows in secret. I went down to the church earlier in the evening to set up a 16mm film projector because I did not speak at our wedding. But I had made a film. So when Erin walked in the room at our wedding, this is what she saw.”

What Erin saw begins as black text materializing and dematerializing, through rack focus, upon a white field. After a brief explanatory introduction, the text, which initially comes from the antiquated five-letter Western Union Telegraphic Code, condenses into legibility and then dissipates, establishing a visual pulse to match the slight throb of the ambient soundtrack.

At the top of the screen you see the Western Union code: for example, “HAFBA 39 JSVKV.” Beneath that, a second mode of writing appears, which seems like a translation of the code. Phrases like “is the instance remarkable?” or “is there any other instance?” fade into and out of view. Gradually a third mode of text is added at the bottom of the screen, in italics, which seems to comment upon the translated phrases.

The reading demand of Gatten’s film is high, but that’s so for all rewarding poetic texts. The rhythm of these appearances—the nonlinguistic but literal telegraphic code, its factoid explanation, and its implicative significance—teaches you how to read them. And the matching pulse of the sound, which comes from the overexposed frame bleeding over into the optical soundtrack, adds a communicative lull. It sounds like the ringing of a telephone in the old pre-touch-tone days when you’d sometimes catch the ghost of the neighbor’s phone dialing or ringing on your line.

The second section of Invisible Ink provides the first imagery of the film. Large black chunks appear onscreen, followed by plant forms like flowers and fronds. Gatten moves from image to image quickly, but not without a luxuriant focus through their depth, as if you’re looking at footage of a microscope viewing. The chunks, as it turns out, are pollen that he collected from the air outside his studio by hanging up strips of cellophane tape. Using an optical printer, he enlarged them significantly while picking up the thickness of the film stock and tape, as well as whatever air bubbles were caught in between. There’s a joyful explosion of structure in moving through the three-dimensionality of the pollen spores.

“There’s probably some relief in not having to read after having read for a while,” Gatten says of the section. “You get to go into a world where language is left behind. And some things are nameable and other things are unnameable, in that space. So for me it is exultation and joy and doesn’t carry in it the anxiety of reading or not being able to read, of making sense or not being able to make sense of the collision of two legible pieces of language.”

“I hope it provides a sort of release and pleasure. It’s a different kind of pleasure from the pleasure that comes from comprehending language.”

The film closes with another section of language in which Gatten pairs the familiar “to have and to hold” phrases of traditional wedding vows with the second, phrasal translations from before. “In sickness and in health” becomes “instances of refuge;” “To cherish and protect” becomes “powerful instances.” After the Common Prayer vows are completed, Gatten shows a few epigrams and lists his sources in a footnote section to close.

Overall, Invisible Ink fuses many modes of communication relevant to Gatten’s and Espelie’s matrimonial moment. The coded, telegraphic mode that was so valuable on the expanding frontier and for isolated spots like their mining town locates them in their home in Colorado. The pollen and plant life references a sexual and reproductive mode. And the film as a whole serves as a third kind of connective communication: vows. It’s a beautiful document.

Gatten’s body of work still seems to be gathering momentum. He’s developed from the aleatory What the Water Said, coming from chance-operation traditions in the literary and visual arts as well as materials-oriented film predecessors like Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight, through the layered Invisible Ink, which forges a unique vocabulary neither solely visual nor textual, into the epic, meditative The Extravagant Shadows. Although that last, most recent film won’t be screened at NCSU, this event affords the opportunity to see some of the most intentional and considered work today in any art form, projected by an artist who you’ll likely want to follow henceforth.

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