RADICAL APPROACHES to the COMPLEXITIES of Today's Film and Media, with Special Interest in POLITICS, PREJUDICE and FEMINISM.
Ruminating on Sweetgrass
MacDonald: Did the route of the seasonal migration take you into Yellowstone National Park? Pat brings the environmentalist issue up when he and John are talking about the “problem bears” that are not afraid of humans. Did the environmental issue play into the demise of this sheep migration?
Castaing-Taylor: Yes and no. The grazing permits in the area date back to the early part of the twentieth century, long after the park was established back in 1872, and were for Bureau of Land Management and National Forest lands just to the north. In 1975 the area was designated a federal “Wilderness” area (preserves of putative “wildness” that, etymologically, impose their extra-human “will” on you), which prohibits all “development,” and since then the Forest Service, under pressure from various self-identified “environmentalist” constituencies, has sought to phase out all herding allotments. The Allestads’ was the last grazing permit to go.
They will tell you it was because of pressure from environmentalists, and that’s half true. But it was also economic and cultural. This kind of transhumance is extraordinarily labor-intensive, and costly. As a system, capitalism will substitute commodities for people, and machines for people’s labor, whenever and wherever it can. And it can on ranches, down on the plains. For the cost of a new pick-up, you could probably pay the salary of three or four old-time hired hands. Every rancher I know would prefer the pick-up. But you can’t get pick-ups into the mountains. And finding qualified help to herd sheep, and defend them (and yourself) against protected predators like grizzly bears and re-introduced grey wolfs, is no easy feat.
In Breakfast, one of the installation pieces that came out of this project, Pat casually lets slip his contempt for “backpackers, granolas, and environmentalists.” The words just slide out of his mouth, almost unthinkingly, and virtually devoid of affect. It’s an amazing line, there’s a whole worldview contained within it, and a whole unwritten history of dispossession of rural folk by educated urbanites patronizing them about how to be proper custodians of the land.
Barbash: Even while we were in Big Timber, they had already started dealing with other kinds of environmental issues with perhaps more significant consequences. The Stillwater Mining company had recently opened up a new corridor into the U.S.’s only palladium and platinum mine. Some of the people in our film worked there—Pat’s brother–in-law for example—in four twelve-hour shifts a week. In 2001 I filmed a town meeting called to discuss the mine, but it didn’t make it into the final cut. The people who attended seemed pretty divided about the impact of the mine on their town. While some of the year-round Big Timber population saw the employment benefits of the mine, others were concerned about the effect of drainage from the mines going into the Boulder river, and changing its temperature and chemistry. And there were also people worried about the social and economic impact of suddenly adding new families to the local area. When we were there, they had to hastily attach some modular classrooms to the schools. By 2008, the mine was the county’s largest employer and paid about forty percent of the county’s tax revenue, and when they started to lay people off because of a mining bust, it hit the community hard. The mine has had other problems more recently during the downturn in the auto industry as the metals it produces are used in vehicle catalytic converters to screen out auto pollution, of all things.
MacDonald: Your use of sound is fascinating, not just because of the sounds of the sheep, but because of the way the sound-scape of the film is constructed. As you mentioned earlier in relation to the “lullaby scene,” we’re often hearing in close-up, extreme close-up, as we’re seeing in long shot, even extreme long-shot. Could you talk about how you did this and what led to this approach? The only place I can remember a similar use of sound and image is at the beginning of Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us .
Barbash: The discrepancy between what you hear and what you think you should hear in sync with an image emerged in the editing room rather than being planned. Initially, we just wanted to get the best sound possible, and it was clear that we had to do that with radio microphones. As we edited we had to think about which sounds we’d privilege and then these odd pairings began to emerge, but Lucien can speak more to the actual recording process.
Castaing-Taylor: When I was recording up in the mountains, I would put up to eight wireless mikes on people—and occasionally on a horse, a dog, or a sheep, but the mikes were expensive, and the cables would easily tear, so we couldn’t afford that as much as we’d have liked. I think we ended up spending more money on mikes than we did on the camera. I could only record four tracks at any one time, two through the camera and two through a tape recorder, so I would be listening through headphones to the different sound sources and deciding which to plug in and record. My experience of being high in the mountains, with these incredible views, but of listening all the while to these sound sources had a huge effect on the final film. In the first place, because lavaliere mikes are so close to the sound source, they result in this very subjective, guttural, highly embodied sound. Roland Barthes spoke not of the mouth, but of the animalic muzzle—the museau, not the bouche, or even the gueule—and I thought a lot about what he meant when I was recording the sound.
If we succeed in adequately bestializing humanity in Sweetgrass, I’d guess it’s in large part due to the sound. Exclamations, heavy breathing, non-propositional fragments of language half mumbled under someone’s breath, tailing off into song or a cough or a cry. This is how we speak, these are the sounds we all make. But documentary has almost entirely turned a deaf ear to them. Also, documentary conventions of naturalism are such that acoustical and optical perspective are generally made to appear to be one and the same. If someone is close to the camera they should sound close; if they’re far away, they should sound far away. Fiction films are not nearly so literal-minded, and with wireless lavaliere mikes, sources always sound close, because they are close, not to the receiver, but to the mike feeding the transmitter. When we were editing, the aesthetic tension between the perspective and spatiality of the sound and picture really came to the fore, and we often tried to push the discrepancy as far as we could.
The danger of lavaliere mikes is of course twofold: you privilege speech over other kinds of sound, which is probably documentary’s greatest failing, and you collapse the space. But we wanted to combine the intimacy of the eavesdropping the lavs allowed us with the monumental magnitude of the mountains, often filmed with long lenses, compressing and pictorialising and in a sense de-realizing the space. One other quality of recording with so many lavs that jumped out at me while shooting was the absurd, often completely surreal synchronicities that would result. The transmitters we used were 250 millawatt, the most powerful that are legal in the U.S., which would transmit a signal to me from up to a mile and a half away. So I could be simultaneously recording with four lavs up to three miles away from each other, none of which might suggest anything whatsoever in common with what the camera was recording through its lens. Other times, when I’d hear something interesting through a lav, I’d see if I could locate where it was, and try to turn the camera onto it—like the shot of John riding along the horizon bedding his “girlies” down in the lullaby sequence, singing a ditty to his horse and himself.
MacDonald: Was everything shot in synch?
Castaing-Taylor: A few times we moved a word or two a few seconds one way or another so it would be intelligible, but basically all the speech is synch. At times, though, we really wanted people to wonder whether the sound was sync or not. For example, during the first night-time scene, above the timberline, up in the basins—what we call the lullaby scene—it’s getting dark and John goes into a kind of reverie as he tries to round the sheep up and get them to settle on the bed ground next to his tipi for the night. He has to go all the way around the band to get the sheep close enough to give him a chance of protecting them from bears and wolves; and so he rides up to the horizon.
The scene is almost surreal because, even when John is perhaps three-quarters of a mile away from the camera, his lovely, subjective, guttural voice gets recorded and feels very intimate. A litany of “girly, girlies,” almost a soliloquy, gently cascades from his mouth, and then he starts singing these half-remembered fragments of old-time Western songs. And when he and his horse ride along the horizon, you feel like you’re being subjected to a classic, over-mythologized Western stereotype—it’s almost too good to be true. It’s such a cliché that you might doubt the nonfiction status of the image. At the very least, you lose confidence for a moment in the filmmaker for peddling you a corny stereotype of the cowboy. But when he breaks from his song, halfway along the horizon, to bark “Get back, Breck!” at his dog, and you faintly make out his dog before him, it clicks, and you know, as impossible as it may seem, that this was being recorded in sync. There are quite a few moments like that scattered throughout.
The sound was edited and mixed by Ernst Karel, an experimental musician, phonographer, sound artist—even an anthropologist. A jack-of-all-trades. He designed a highly orchestrated multi-track soundscape that layered many different kinds of sounds, especially of ambience and of the sheep. My own on-camera mono microphone couldn’t begin to do justice to the vastness of mountain acoustics. He eventually mixed his composition down into two versions, a 5.1 surround sound mix for the Dolby SRD, and a stereo version for the analog optical track. I’m almost completely tone deaf, so it was a godsend to find him.
MacDonald: Your end credits say “Produced by Ilisa Barbash” and “Recorded by Lucien Castaing-Taylor.” Lisa, I’d be interested in knowing what was involved in producing the film. And, Lucien, why the unusual “Recorded by”? You both have editing credit, but no one is listed as “Director” or “Filmmaker.”
Barbash: I’m not entirely comfortable with dividing up the credits in this way. I think elaborate titles make more sense when there is a larger crew and a need to make sure the division of labor is clear, and that the credit for doing various kinds of work is evident. I’d say that we’re both the “filmmakers,” and I’d almost have been happy leaving it at that. We both conceived of the film, edited it, and both produced it, and dealt with all the production logistics. But Lucien did more, having shot all of footage that ended up in this film, and he “directed” himself as a cameraman. No one “directed” the participants, except perhaps the ranch owner, Lawrence Allestad!
Castaing-Taylor: “Directed” just seems all wrong. We’re not out to disavow our agency or anything, but what or who did we direct? We never interviewed anyone. We never told anyone what to do, or to do anything again, however much I sometimes wished they would. I was a parasite, along for the ride. Anything that made it into the film did so through contingency, happenstance, serendipity. Cinéma vérité, at its best, works through a unique combination of anticipation and accident, and although our engagement with aesthetics is very unlike vérité’s—remember the old quip that vérité makes up in immediacy what it lacks in appearance?—our renunciation of directorial control rendered us dependent on the accidental and correspondingly elevated the importance of our capacity to anticipate action before it happened.
Our only “direction” was unwitting, when I got in the way, especially in the early weeks, trying to get the camera angle I wanted and turning the sheep back from a gate, or, if I was leading the sheep through the timber when trailing into the mountains, going the wrong way and causing a wreck. Maybe it should be say “De-rected by.” “Directed by” smacks of a documentary inferiority complex, fiction film-envy, what have you. It’s both epistemologically dubious and ethically duplicitous.
MacDonald: I wonder how much you were thinking of particular westerns—Red River , for example—as you shot or edited Sweetgrass.
Barbash: I grew up watching Gunsmoke and Bonanza, and when I first met the people who ended up in Sweetgrass, they reminded me of characters from these shows, and from Western movies I had seen. Pat’s intonation, for example, always reminds me of John Wayne. One of the characters has a brother whose nickname is Festus, as in Gunsmoke. When we started this project I bought a whole bunch of DVDs of Westerns, and we kept intending to watch them, but ended up not doing that kind of homework. What’s interesting to me is how accurately in some ways and how inaccurately in others Hollywood has portrayed the West. Our film confirms some of what you see in Hollywood Westerns and perhaps corrects other things.
The people in Sweetgrass really do wear cowboy hats. $350 a shot, pure beaver pelt. One of them came to visit us and wore his cowboy hat on the T and in Sever Hall at Harvard; all the groomsmen wore cowboy hats at his wedding. On the other hand, the people we filmed were really good at riding four-wheelers (often just on two wheels) and at using cell phones and communicating by walkie-talkie, so in a way, Sweetgrass is meant to show you what the Old West has become. But I definitely meant for our film to refer back to films like Red River, though we weren’t informed by Red River in particular.
Castaing-Taylor: I grew up in Liverpool, in the northwest of England, a post-industrial detritus of a city. We didn’t have television at home, and we never went to the movies. I’ve never seen Red River, though Lisa’s told me about it; I’ve seen hardly any Westerns. In fact, when it comes to cinema, I’m pretty illiterate. I don’t really like movies, to be honest: most are so audio-visually intrusive that I resent them. All about spectacle and distraction. Literature at once gives freer reign to and intrudes less on your imagination. It’s less sensorially stimulating and less coercive—seems more intellectually democratic somehow.
MacDonald: Brokeback Mountain  came out during the time when you were working on this project; I confess I’ve sometimes describedSweetgrass to people as “Brokeback Mountain without the sex”! What are your thoughts on the Ang Lee film—its early sequence of sheep-herding is much less intimate than yours, but it’s spectacular in its own way. Did the herders you worked with have a reaction to Brokeback?
Barbash: I was probably the only person in the audience who watched Brokeback thinking, “Oh, no, don’t cut to Jake Gyllenahl, the sheep are about to do something really interesting.” Of course, Brokeback was shot in a beautiful setting (British Columbia), but I really did feel that a lot of the beauty of the landscape and motion of the sheep were neglected for the story. Understandably so.
I’ve heard that Ang Lee had to make some compromises with Brokeback Mountain—that ninety percent of the film was shot within seventy feet of a road and they couldn’t wrangle enough real life sheep to go the right way and so they tripled them in digital recreations. We had a much more cooperative cast.
Castaing-Taylor: Brokeback was pure spectacle, and a total melodrama, quite the contrary of the restraint and subtlety of Annie Proux’s minimalist prose. The performances redeemed it, especially the wives. But I don’t think I know anyone in Montana who actually saw the film.
MacDonald: You’ve described the sheep-herding project as salvage ethnography, which in many senses it is, of course; but sometimes it seems as close to James Benning’s films and the work of other avant-garde filmmakers, as to traditional documentaries. In Sweetgrass what is normally thought of as avant-garde film history and documentary history seem to merge. Did your working in Boulder have an impact on the way you think of yourselves as filmmakers? Stan Brakhage and Phil Solomon are thanked in the end credits. Barbash: At every point during the editing, because of our anthropological training, we, or at least I, thought about both ethnography and aesthetics, or art; and when the two concerns didn’t seem to mesh, we’d incline one way or the other. I don’t think we put our chips in one particular camp. I do think we could have made the film more “ethnographic” if we had provided more information within the film. A friend of ours showed a film of his to Clifford Geertz, an eminent anthropologist, and Geertz’s response was something like, “Well, how many people lived in that village? Your film doesn’t even show me that.” We could have told you how many people lived in Big Timber; at the very beginning, we could have explained that this was the last sheep drive, but we decided not to impart information in what felt was an artificial or extraneous way.
If we end up showing Sweetgrass to anthropologists and people are disgruntled that we don’t give them enough information, we’ll have to defend ourselves. But we’re happy with the choices we made. I never studied Stan’s work but came to know it when we were colleagues in Boulder, and as I showed his films in my classes. Stan would go to a café on Pearl Street every day and paint directly on celluloid. That was how he was making his films at the time. One Christmas he generously gave us a few frames as a present. I think that attention to detail, to the frame itself, in fact to parts within the frame, was influential on our thinking about film, and even about video—which for Stan was, of course, toxic waste. Each tiny element, each frame, each sound needs to be carefully considered. But while he would build up a frame, by painting or gluing layers upon layers, we would deconstruct what we’d shot on video, pulling bits apart, separating sound from video at times, separating out the various synch sound tracks, and then reconstructing it all back together. MacDonald: Lucien, your sensory ethnography approach to teaching film at Harvard blurs the boundaries of documentary and avant-garde film; did your living in Boulder move you in this direction, or does your interest in the widest spectrum of cinema pre-date those years? Castaing-Taylor: It’s hard to say. It was definitely influenced by joining Harvard’s Art Department, and realizing just to what degree artists and anthropologists talk past each other, even, indeed especially, when they think they’re addressing one another. Anthropologists are the guiltier by far, heirs to a kind of post-structuralism that still sees all the world as a text, a form of cultural textology that has totally discolored the way the discipline has engaged aesthetics. To have artists as colleagues and collaborators, and to see how conceptually and perceptually freeing it was not to be forever hung up on rendering the whole magnitude of existence and all the vicissitudes of experience as so many iterations of linguified “meaning,”was a huge revelation to me.
But the Sensory Ethnography Lab equally reflects the particular culture of anthropology at Harvard, and the non-canonical literary sensibilities and philosophical inclination of many of my anthropology colleagues. Not to mention the intellectual provocations of the grad students, which I didn’t expect at all: I thought they’d be as conservative as could be, Goody Two-Shoes straight-A students; they have turned out to be my greatest stimulation of all.
As for Boulder, being in Film Studies expanded my horizons no end, but not really beyond avant-garde film. I’m working now in sound, as well as photography, and video; I don’t relate to the desire to identify with, or feel confined to, any particular “art form.” Greenbergian medium-specificity seems so myopic and almost self-validating; art may be species-specific, and so all of ours’ anthropomorphic, but not much more than that.
MacDonald: One final question: Is the title Sweetgrass in any sense a reference to the Merian C. Cooper, Ernest P. Schoedsack film, Grass? There too, domesticated animals climb over a mountain. Barbash: By calling it Sweetgrass, I think we make it fairly clear that we are referencing Grass. We don’t expect that most people who see our film will have seen Grass, but when we were thinking about our project as a kind of salvage ethnography, we thought back to films we’d seen and studied and taught, and about ways in which we might respond to this history in our work, either by doing some kind of imitation or some kind of contradiction. Certainly Grass was foremost in our minds because it is about this huge seasonal migration of animals. Castaing-Taylor: “Sweet Grass” is the name of one of the counties where we shot, where the town of Big Timber is. Sweetgrass was Lisa’s title and the tilt of the hat to Cooper and Schoedsack was hers. I wanted “Sweetgrass Beartooth,” which I now realize is too much of a mouthful. Grass is an amazing work, in its own way—though it’s also classically Orientalist; in its representation of the Bakhtiari it’s much closer to the racialising and patronizing colonial travelogues of the period than Nanook , which incarnated a kind of humanism that seems to me totally without precedent. In any case, Sweetgrass is not predicated on anyone getting that reference. I see Sweetgrass as a revisionist riff on the pastoral, an age-old form in literature and painting. Barbash: And now that Sweetgrass is finished, we’re going to depart from the pastoral and make our own version of King Kong! Seriously, I do think it’s interesting that after exploring the intensity of a mass migration of animals, Cooper and Schoedsack delved further into animality by exploring the dark, bestial nature of man.
MacDonald: I first became aware of the sheepherding project when you showed the short pieces as a kind of feature at Hamilton College, and indeed they work as a feature for me—a feature as evocative and beautiful, in many ways, as Sweetgrass itself. Am I correct that these short pieces were completed before the final cuts of Sweetgrass?
Castaing-Taylor: In really rough cut form, yes. Long before. But the sound work was all done after, in the fall of 2009 with Ernst Karel, and for me they’re more sound pieces than they are video. And I also fiddled with the picture, making hundreds of changes even after I’d exhibited earlier versions of them, with just rough and ready stereo sound patched in.
MacDonald : You’ve said that the short pieces that you’ve completed along with Sweetgrass were conceived as gallery pieces, though I’ve never quite understood why you would want them seen in a gallery, where their unusually patient sense of time would get lost on nearly everyone strolling through. It’s true that some avant-garde filmmakers (I don’t know that this is the case with documentary makers) have moved toward gallery installation because of what seems an almost unbelievable disparity in potential financial reward between installation work and works made for theatrical projection. Can you help me understand why you would consider these pieces for gallery presentation, and second, how they would work as installations in an ideal situation?
Castaing-Taylor: Hell Roaring Creek might seem patient to you, as a spectator, though I kick myself for my impetuousness when shooting it, but you can hardly call The High Trail, or Bedding Down, or Into-the-jug (“Geworfen”) patient, or durational in any meaningful way. They all bombard you with different kinds of frenetic, tactile intensity.
Basically, in the course of editing the material we had shot, which was around two hundred hours all in, various sequences jumped out at me as having a kind of structural integrity or some kind of aesthetic autonomy or value that would be eclipsed or at least radically attenuated if they were included in the single-channel documentary. I remember Umberto Eco a long time ago describing film as being constituted by so many “syntagmatic chains imbued with argumentative capacity.” This is a weakness, a foreclosing of aesthetic possibility, as well as a strength. Documentary is even worse in this regard than so-called narrative cinema, in that it conjoins the kinds of closure to which narrative typically tends with its explicit concern with expository argumentation, or logical propositionality. As Gabriel Marcel once said, you don’t go to the movies to hear a lecture on the “doctrine of Kant” or to “listen to explications.” Yet often times with documentaries that’s about all you get!
As much as we sought to resist this in Sweetgrass, the film still has a narrative structure, an ostensibly very simple one at that, and hence all the limits that narrative entails. The other works assumed their rough shape before we finished Sweetgrass, and a few of them. in earlier versions, were installed at Marian Goodman Gallery in 2007 and at CUNY’s James Gallery in 2008, but I’m actually only getting around to finishing them now, in 2010. These pieces explore different structures, and also quite different stylistic registers from Sweetgrass. It feels to me like they made themselves, in a sense. I didn’t have an exhibition space in mind when they were being edited. But your question points to a real conundrum. I’d be staggered if there weren’t as many starving self-appelled artists as there are starving self-appelled filmmakers, so I’m not at all sure that financial motivation can often be a factor; and for many, the obscenity of the recent high capitalization of the art world might be more a source of repulsion than of attraction.
I know in my case, and I’d guess also for many working in so-called film or video art, the motivating factor is a desire to get more from your audience, a deeper and a different kind of spectatorial attention to the work—one, for me at least, less attuned to narrative chains of meaning than to sheer manifestations of being, and to forms of figural expressivity that are more ambiguous and opaque than narrative’s proclivity to discursive clarity usually allows. I don’t think art is usually apprehended with the same desire to circumscribe meaning.
Liam Gillick often frames “relational aesthetics” in terms of a return to discourse, as if that’s an ideological, or political gesture. But I think he has it quite wrong, and that Lyotard got it pretty much dead right in Discours/figure: figuration is much more unruly, much more of a provocation, and an intervention, than discourse, which, in its self-sufficiency and capacity to say essentially anything, and its faith in lucidity and transparency, constantly threatens to control and manipulate the messy material world which we inhabit, and which mercifully will always have a magnitude to it in excess of our representations of it. Discourse is about signification, its space is essentially flat; the figural is about sense, and the sensorial, and its space is deep. Of course, everything, even discourse, is, in the end, figural—if you take the metaphor and metonymy out of language there’s nothing left—but it’s attenuated, almost ashamed, figuration, which is perhaps why it’s constantly trying to colonize and control it.
But you point to a very real problem that I think all film and video artists, and art curators, struggle with, and which is never going to go away: how best to exhibit time-based figural media in a gallery or art context? To be super crude and schematic, there’s this dyad of a white cube versus a black box. In reality of course, any site, theatre, studio or street, public or private, has its own specificity to it. But when Sharon Lockhart’s recentLunch Break was installed at Barbara Gladstone gallery in New York, I think they made a big mistake in simply recreating a black box within a white cube. They also left the rear wall white, reducing the contrast ratio of the projection by over 50%. But had the film been installed in a long dark tunnel mirroring the corridor that is the subject of the piece, as I imagine Sharon would have liked, it would have been something else entirely.
The biggest problem though seems to me the temporal one, and the aesthetic of a loop, which has to be an aesthetic of the fragment, a metonymic aesthetic whereby a part, any part, has to be able to work on its own terms, and also in some ways stand in for the whole. The Dutch artists de Rijke and de Rooij would sometimes announce the screening times of their films, when shown in museums, and even try to prohibit admission once they had started rolling, replicating the finite temporality of the theater in a non-theatrical site. But in general, even if you want a richer and less circumscribed kind of attention when showing work in an art context than a cinema one, you also get less, at least temporally, as people walk in and out of a loop willy-nilly.
If you take Hell Roaring Creek (2010), which is my favorite piece I’ve made, except maybe for Bedding Down (2010), it consists of seven movements if you see it linearly, but only six if you experience it as a loop and stay with it all the way through: three periods of black with sound and three of picture with sound. The three periods of picture are all iterations of or excerpts from what originated as a single shot, a fusion of real and cinematic time. There’s a temporality, and a narrativity, to the whole, with the first period of black and then the first of picture setting up the expectation of an event, a happening of some unknown kind, which only begins to take form towards the end of the first shot. The “event” turns out to be both infinite, or seemingly infinite, in the second shot, and then to become something of a non-event (dawn is past, the sky is overcast, the creek has returned to its undisturbed self) in the third. But the piece is also made to be seen in part: to be sure, what you get experiencing one, say, ninety-second fragment is not the same as what you get from another, so there’s also an interactivity and a recunciation of authorial control there, but this can be liberating and part of the open-endedness of the work.
I should maybe mention another thing, which is huge. I call all of these pieces “audiovideo” works, because they have five discrete channels of sound; and in many ways sound is more important to them than picture. Few theaters are equipped to play back 5.1 or 7.1 (or any other format of) surround sound, and fewer still from HD video, rather than 35mm film. So to show them in a non-surround theater, which is the norm for avant-garde and documentary screenings, is like cutting off more than half their limbs, and to privilege a kind of ocularcentricity which the works themselves oppose.
Two more points, then I’ll shut up. James Benning’s given up on film, or so he says (Ngugi wa Thiongo returned to English having vowed he’d write only in Kikuyu thenceforth), because he can’t deal with the nightmare of 16mm processing any more. Who can blame him? But, for all of the putatively “lossless” infinite clonability of the digital, and its subversion of the distinction between original and copy, video exhibition is as fickle and mercurial, and downright complex, as anything ever invented, far more unreliable than even 16m projection ever was. It’s an unmitigated nightmare. But if you install a work in an exhibition space, you potentially have much more control over the playback of the picture—as well as the sound.
Lastly, the site-specificity of theatrical spaces is essentially repressed, or a given—if you’re present, you might fiddle with the sound level, or ask for a new bulb for the projector, but your choices are very limited, and if you’re absent, you don’t even give it a thought. We haven’t the foggiest inkling about the theatrical spaces where Sweetgrass is showing. But gallery installation engages with the space directly and unavoidably. Hell Roaring Creek, for instance, is designed to be projected onto a hanging, translucent screen, so you can view it from either side. You can’t walk through it, in the stream itself, but you can walk around it, in effect along either bank of the creek, and watch and listen to it from either side. The five-channel surround is also to be installed on both sides of the screen, so you’re effectively dealing with ten channels of sound, all situated spatially in relationship to a two-sided screen. A far cry from a cinema, or, worse, a class room.
MacDonald: I have some questions about the individual short pieces. Only two are made up exclusively of material that didn’t get into the final cut of Sweetgrass: Hell Roaring Creek and Bedding Down. Of all the short pieces, Hell Roaring Creek seems most obviously its own piece; for me it’s the gem of the project, and of the short pieces, the most closely related to avant-garde work (the other short pieces seem more like, say, John Marshall’s “sequence films” on the !Kung and Timothy Asch’s, on the Yanomami). Hell Roaring Creek reminds me of Benning and Hutton and also of J. J. Murphy’s Sky Blue Water Light Sign—I wonder if you know it?
Castaing-Taylor: I’ve never seen it. In fact, I’ve never seen anything by Murphy.
MacDonald: Hell Roaring Creek is made up of three shots, each separated from the other by a ten-second moment of black. Why those breaks?—it is clear that for the second shot, you’ve moved the camera closer (or have readjusted your zoom lens) and that you move back to the original position after the second pause—does each visual pause represent a break in time? The two caesuras do function to wake the viewer up, to refresh one’s attention.
Castaing-Taylor: I don’t really know how to talk about this work yet. It wasn’t shot as a conceptual piece, but it’s become one, at least in part, for me. It was a mistake. It was my first time in the mountains, and my first year with that many sheep. We were trailing in, we set up camp, bedded the sheep down, and then Lawrence, the rancher, showed me where we’d cross the creek the next morning. I think the whole effect of Hell Roaring Creek is predicated on my not knowing anything about it, so hopefully nobody will read this who hasn’t seen it already.
I knew we’d be getting up about 4:00, and would cross the creek around 5:00 or a little later. I guessed where the sun would come up. And then I guessed how long it would take for the herd, all 3,000 of them, to cross. I was thinking three-four minutes. I decided I’d stand in the creek, and film the crossing in a single shot. The sun would be coming up behind, it would be beautiful, and I thought it might make a great three-minute pre-title sequence to what would become Sweetgrass, and alert viewers to the durational qualities of the film, and the kind of patience it would demand.
Well, what did I know? It took them thirty minutes, not three to cross. I could only guess at the time while I was shooting, but I knew it wouldn’t work in the way I’d imagined the night before. So I was thinking on the fly, and I lost confidence in it as a single-shot—only partially, but enough to screw it up. After about ten minutes, I slowly zoomed in, to change the camera angle. I somehow instinctively knew not to stop shooting, to hold on to that conflation between real and cinematic time, but I was still thinking about Sweetgrass, and felt the need to change camera angle, or in this case focal length, so we’d have the option of cutting later. But after twenty minutes the crossing was still going strong, the band seemingly infinite, like Rabelais’s “moutons de Panurge” in Pantegruel. And I started fretting about the zoom in, and what that had done to the shot, so I slowly zoomed out again, as if that might somehow rectify my original sin. And still the crossing took another ten minutes.
Had I not zoomed, in or out, my guess is that I would have left it as this structural single-shot. But I tried that and was never happy with it. Because zooming is forbidden, tainted by its use and abuse in television, I really wanted to include the zooms, and stick with the shot as a whole. But I just found it too distracting, and too much about me. I’m a biped, not a tripod, and even though I was trying to hold the camera as still as if it were on a tripod, all the little movements tell you that it’s handheld. I like them, but also feel that that was enough about me. And in the same way that I initially wanted to retain the zooms because they’re forbidden, I also wanted to subvert or somehow move beyond all the macho heroics of structural filmmaking, which seem dated now, the dogmatic slumber of a certain generation, and often also, epistemologically pretty naïve. Benning’s RR—which I love—feels so impatient as almost to be impetuous, in its complete exclusion of the before and after, those periods of transformation that are so much more revealing than the restricted times the trains take to traverse the frame. So then I cut out the two zoom movements, and for years—honestly, years—played with how to combine the truncated shots that were left, from straight cuts to using as many minutes of black as I’d cut out. Every time I thought I’d got it right, I’d watch it again, a few months later, and it felt all wrong. In the end I settled on two sections of ten seconds, and another of a minute (or two of thirty seconds, if you don’t see it as a loop).
With the surround sound composition that Ernst and I built, that feels about right to me now. Maybe it’ll feel all wrong in five years. As I see it, the stretches of black ask you to question what you think you’re seeing. You might even wonder, when you return to the image, if this is the same crossing, or if it was shot another time. Or if you trust that it’s one and the same, you still have to ask yourself what was cut out, and why, or wonder if there was more than one camera, because of the shift in focal length combined with apparent infinity of Panurge’s sheep. The first ten-second section of black is hell, a killer, a complete violation of the temporal fusion you’ve been experiencing, and of the unconsummated anticipation of an event that’s only just beginning, but the second period of black, or rather the return to the wider shot at the end of the second stretch of black, recontextualizes that. It also returns humans to the ecological fold, somewhat bestialized after the three thousand head of sheep, and you’re jerked out of the almost atemporal synchronicity of the middle section, which has no beginning or end, where you’re engaging essentially aesthetically, rather than narratively, your attention fluctuating between the vertical stream of water and the horizontal one of sheep, between the sheep as a collectivity and all of their individual particularities—the ewes and the lambs, the shorn and the unshorn, the arthritic and the athletic, the fearful and the fearless—you’re jerked out of these ruminations, and forcibly plunged back into the narrative temporality of the crossing, with the end now in sight.
So you, or I (it’s just awful when an artist tells you how you feel) simultaneously give myself over to the perceptual experience of this durational flow and ask myself all these conceptual questions. As the unraveling of an “image-idea,” that took forever to congeal, I’m finally reconciled to it.
MacDonald: It’s interesting to see how the longer film sometimes includes a substantial portion of the relevant short piece (Coom Biddy, for example, Daybreak on the Bedground and Turned at the Pass) and sometimes uses very little of the short piece (The High Trail, Into-the-Jug). Having finished the short pieces, was it difficult to re-edit them into a form that felt comfortable in Sweetgrass?
Castaing-Taylor: No. From around 2006 on, they were already separate in my mind. In a sense Sweetgrass quotes or lifts from some of the audiovideo pieces, but not actually that much, and with the shorter shot lengths and recontextualization within Sweetgrass the shared shots feel quite different to me. Coom Biddy is a triptych, with the two formal, static images sandwiching the long interior tracking shot. There’s no way that tracking shot could have been sustained within Sweetgrass, because of the narrative thrust propelling the film forward, and excluding other kinds of aesthetic engagement.
Bedding Down is about the real, in a totally different register from the other works, with nothing but jump cuts, its low-res handheld horseback video, and initially unlocatable sync soundtrack that, as the piece proceeds, increasingly channels the agonistic, diabolic descent into a kind of violent interiority. The picture seems in places to decompose, moving in amorphous waves as the rider rises and falls. It’s at once at the threshold of the visible and at the threshold of the technological, pushing the camera’s sensors and automation beyond their capabilities. It’s true that some of these pieces can be seen to reframe or elaborate a sequence that also appears in Sweetgrass, like the dialogue-heavy Breakfast, but for me they’re quite separate.
MacDonald: Where does the title Into-the-Jug (translated as Geworfen) come from?
Castaing-Taylor: “Geworfen” is actually part of the title, not its translation. The small pens that newborn lambs and their “mothers” are placed in for the first few days of the lambs’ life are called “jugs.” Don’t ask me why, unless it’s just as a symbol of containment. I’ve asked a few people, and they don’t know either. I suppose, if it weren’t for the roving, fallible camera, that this is the one piece—an eleven-minute single shot, limited in dutiful Bazinian fashion to the duration of the various births it depicts—that might be seen to give itself over to some of the indulgences of structural film.
For me, it proceeds through slow disclosure, and progressively defamiliarizes and reframes its subject as it goes along. But birth, especially of course of innocent, harmless, soon-to-be-gambolling lambs, is as over-determined as anything could ever be, and the births we’re witness to are so tactile, so viscous, so acoustically overbearing, and so physically intense that it’s hard not to avert your gaze. As Susan Sontag once put it, we’re not blessed with earlids, so unless you leave the room you can’t avert your consciousness altogether. In Into-the-Jug (“Geworfen”), sound is even more a vector of the abject than the picture. But it’s hard to give the piece your full attention on an initial viewing. And even if you do, it probably takes anyone other than a sheep rancher the full eleven minutes to figure out what exactly is going on: to realize that the lambs are being mixed and matched like nobody’s business, and that the ties of kinship being created are fictive, not biological, and mediated through and through with the well-nigh omnipotent agency of the man pulling them out. A very particular, and rather disturbing form of consanguinity!
Basically, mothering ewes have different amounts of milk, and some can support two (very occasionally, three) lambs, and some (especially many two year-olds) just one. But once you start mixing and matching, you create this pool of “bum” lambs. And you only have about a twenty-four hour window when you can convince an ewe that a lamb that is not her biological offspring is hers, by covering it in the caul and amniotic fluid of her own newborn (or the flayed skin of her stillborn). So you automatically take the biological lamb away from her because you have others who have been alive for going-on twenty-four hours and who need a mother bad. The clock’s ticking. The man, in short, is God, a deus ex machina, even if he’s down on his knees in the jug grunting and groaning with his bloody arm stuck up the vaginas of the mothers in labor.
What kind of “nature” is this? “Domesticated” doesn’t seem the right word for it; it’s not about taming, it’s more precisely a form of wildness and unholy alchemy that we don’t even have a word for. In short, within the space of these eleven minutes, the whole ideological edifice and opposition between Nature and Culture collapses in a pool of impure interspecies nascency on the floor of the strawed jug. In any event, as for the title, this piece evokes for me Martin Heidegger’s core concept, his neologism Geworfenheit, which is usually translated as “Thrownness,” or “Thrown-into-the-World” in English. It was his principal revision to Husserlian phenomonology and Husserl’s notion of the Lebenswelt—immediate, intuitive, unreflective lived experience—as opposed to the Weltanschaung, one’s worldview, which is a matter of metaphysics, of belief, of rationality, of ideology.
Heidegger wanted to emphasize the way our lot in life, our Dasein, the flux of our Being-in-the-world is constrained and structured and in many ways is a function of all these variables and contingencies that lie outside of our control, beyond our grasp, that predate us, and so on. For me,Into-the-Jug is an absolutely literal exemplification of that thrownness, that Geworfenheit, all these newborn lambs being thrown around with such abandon but also with such attention. And their being paired up with mothers—not willy nilly, because the rancher is processing a mass of calculations as he chooses who to couple with whom, but in ways and for reasons unknown to the lambs but which will go a long way to determining the kind of life they’ll lead. And in everyday, colloquial German, Geworfen (without the nominalizing suffix) is used to describe both whelping and foaling. Quite possibly also, though not so far as I know, lambing. Metaphorically, then, being born is being thrown. What more perfect image of Dasein is there than this moving, messy image of liquid, liminal entry into life itself?
MacDonald: You’ve developed the “Sensory Ethnography” program at Harvard. I assume you're using “sensory ethnography” as opposed toverbal ethnography (writing about cultural practices in essays, books, or in screenplays for documentaries that use a lecture format). Your interest in filmmaking seems experiential in the sense that John Dewey talks about artworks being concentrations/intensifications of lived experiences, rather than informational presentations and/or theoretical conjectures; and your sense of “ethnographic film” seems much broader than what that term traditionally is taken to mean. Tell me about the thinking that resulted in the Sensory Ethnography program, your decision to use “sensory ethnography,” and how your program plays out practically.
Castaing-Taylor: Well, you pretty much just said it all. Juxtaposing perspectives from the sciences, the arts, and the humanities, the aim of the Sensory Ethnography Lab is to support innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography, especially with work conducted through audiovisual media (video, sound, film, photography, and “new” hypermedia), that are at an angle to dominant conventions in anthropology, documentary, and art practice.
I suppose it’s worth situating the Sensory Ethnography Lab both within the provincial domain of Harvard and within the larger trajectories of visual anthropology, documentary, and art practice. Harvard has long been extremely intellectually timorous about the arts—happy to exhibit them (in the Fogg), commodify them (make the odd purchase—though these days neither the Fogg and the Art Museums nor the Peabody has a significant acquisition budget to speak of), and perform them (especially undergraduate orchestras and dramatic groups), but not to actively produce them within the academic belly of the beast. The Art department has a name (Visual and Environmental Studies) that does its level best to disavow the art-making that goes on there and which corresponds to no disciplinary nomenclature outside the university. The same is true, in a way, of the History of Consciousness program at University of California Santa Cruz, but because of the distinctiveness of the work that came out of there, especially during the early decades, it achieved a kind of totemic status, and was recognized within the humanities and the human sciences. That’s not really the case for VES, which until recently has been an undergraduate-only program which has signally failed to conjugate the “visual” and the “environmental” in any systematic way.
But all this is now changing, and very fast. Drew Faust, Harvard’s President, has three big agendas—art practice and creative work, global health, and environmental consciousness. Her first significant act as President was to create a Task Force for the Arts, chaired by Stephen Greenblatt, which recommended integrating art-making into the cognitive life of the university across the board, and especially in the graduate and undergraduate curricula. The sequel to the Task Force, a new Committee on the Arts (HUCA), is now deciding how to implement the recommendations, and what kind of graduate art-making programs to establish. The Sensory Ethnography Lab, the Graduate School of Design’s new degree in Art, Design, and the Public Domain, the practice-based Ph.D. in Media Anthropology, and the new fellowship program at the Film Study Center (Harvard’s one Center devoted to art-making or creative work), all have to be understood within this new commitment to take art-making as seriously, as a cultural and intellectual endeavor, as traditional scientific and humanistic forms of academic scholarship.
As for situating the Sensory Ethnography Lab within the larger trajectories of visual anthropology, documentary, and contemporary art, your reference to Dewey seems right on. On the one hand, the SEL’s ethnographic imperatives mean that the work coming out of it is generally more committed to the “real” than art is, especially conceptual and post-conceptual art, and to a form of expression that is somehow adequate to the magnitude of human experience. Or, if that’s too much, at least to working within (as well as against) various species of realism. Dewey seems crucial here, especially Art as Experience, which has somehow been neglected by anthropologists of art. I would guess there are at least two reasons why. In the first place, Dewey takes as his subject, although he does not use the term, the phenomenology of aesthetic experience—experience that surely is at the heart of human existence if anything is, but which is something that anthropologists of art have actually not been very interested in, concerned instead to reduce being to mere meaning, and art to so many epiphenomena of one or another culture, to mere “material culture,” or to something analogous to ritual, and so on and so forth.
In the second place, Dewey is deeply invested in “nature,” to recursively coupling aesthetic experience not simply with everyday experience, but also with its infra-human animalic sources, and the at once sub- and supra-cutaneous interaction between what he called—three decades or more before the coinage of “cyborgs”—the co-constituting “live creature” and its “environment,” whereas for social and cultural anthropologists talk of nature has long been something of an embarrassment—to be disavowed, immediately transformed into “second nature,” mediated through-and-through by culture, a mere social construction, or (as with Bruno Latour) a dangerous political or scientific ideology to be actively combated.
Like Dewey, the SEL is concerned, not to analyze, but to actively produce aesthetic experience, and of kinds that reflect and draw on but do not necessarily clarify or leave one with the illusion of “understanding” everyday experience, and it also seeks to transcend what is often considered the particular province of the human, and delve into nature—in short, to re-conjugate culture with nature, to pursue promiscuities between animalic and non-animalic selves and others, and to restore us both to the domain of perception, in all its plenitude, rather than the academic game of what Dewey called “recognition,” or of naming, that he derided as a barely conscious endeavor; and to the fleshy realm, in Merleau-Ponty’s phrase, of “wild being,” in which the invisible, far from being the negation or contradiction of the visible, is in fact its “secret sharer,” itsmembrure…
I think it is also true that the works emerging from the SEL are more concerned with issues of aesthetics and form than documentary usually is, and are for the most part opposed to conventional documentary on a slew of counts: to the journalistic use of interviews, or of featuring subjects merely talking about their lives, ex post facto, rather than actually living them; to the reductive range of dramaturgical narrative structures documentary typically deploys, their linearity and predilection for resolution and closure; and to the narrow repertoire of styles that are sanctioned by the gatekeepers of documentary practice—in particular the ongoing hegemony half a century after the fact of a kind of lazy and lax cinéma vérité, and the consecration of a frequently unseeing and unsensing, putatively “observational,” aesthetic within the ethnographic film world, and its dismissal of anything experimental, structurally rigorous, or stylistically demanding as provincially “avant-garde” or unduly self-reflexive or self-indulgent. It is as if the custodians of the sacred flame of ethnographic cinema are oblivious to any developments in art or in film since Jean Rouch’s experiments in ethno-fiction in the 1960s and 1970s.
Lastly, I think it’s true that the SEL is also opposed, though this time in the name of art and its inherent exegetical ambiguity—in the name, that is to say, of the figural and its opacity, over against the discursive and its desire for transparency—to the clarity and interpretive self-sufficiency to which anthropology and academia typically tend, and is much more invested in what John Keats, in his famous letter to his brother, characterized as “negative capability”—the quintessentially human capacity to be, as he put it, “in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” In regards to anthropology, this inclination to the perceptual first and the conceptual second implicitly entails a relativization of the “cultural textology,” in Barbara Stafford’s phrase, bequeathed by the hermeneutic turn of Clifford Geertz, and a renewed interrogation of core abstractions like culture, society, and the self (or at least, representations of the self), and a return to the primacy of the individual, the body, and above all inter-subjective and inter-corporeal experience—as the ground of what is thought and what is said, as the ground of both meaning and symbolism.
There are more than enough precursors for this move in addition to Dewey, Keats, and Merleau-Ponty. This is the domain, in part, of what Mead and Bateson (in Balinese Character) called “kinaesthetic learning.” In existential anthropologist Michael Jackson’s more recent expression, it is “practical mimesis.” It is also, to be sure, the realm of the non-verbal and the non-discursive, or, in Foucault’s neo-Kantian terms, the “seeable” (though why privilege sight? Why not simply sensible) but “un-sayable.” The cinema, video, and sound, all have a particular purchase on the experiential that differs quite fundamentally from that of our written representations, particularly in their deployment, as Vivian Sobchack emphasized, of acts of moving, hearing, and seeing as at once the originary structures of embodied existence and the mediating structures of discourse.
MacDonald: Not only Sweetgrass and the related installation works, but the films I've seen by your students J.P. Sniadecki (Songhua, 2007;Demolition/Chaiqian, 2008), Sniadecki and Verena Paravel (Foreign Parts, 2010), and Stephanie Spray (Kale and Kale, 2007; Monsoon Reflections, 2008; As Long As There’s Breath, 2009) seem to fit within two traditionally distinct historical paradigms: they are documentaries of cultural places, moments, and practices; but they are also contributions to the strand of avant-garde filmmaking that includes Bruce Baillie, James Benning, Peter Hutton, Nathaniel Dorsky, and Sharon Lockhart. Am I correct that you have jettisoned the distinction between “documentary” and “avant-garde”?
Castaing-Taylor: Yes. Not deliberately, I don’t think, or in some kind of dogmatic way. But just because the distinction seems indefensible, and it would never occur to me to invoke it. It’s also unfortunate: documentarians as a result often don’t see any reason to engage with so-called “experimental” or “avant-garde” traditions, and on the flip side, a category like “experimental” implicitly sets itself off against a domain that is thereby defined as non-experimental, as if documentarians just follow the rules and regulations of a genre by rote. But all genres have their conventions, are in a constant state of flux and de- and re-formation.
I think Bourdieu overstated his case that artists, like intellectuals, are forever in competition with their fellows, as they seek to carve out a niche in which to inscribe their “authority” in a particular “field” of cultural production. It’s not, of course, that artists are any less self-interested than anyone else, but rather that many are often willfully ignorant of what others are doing even within their own “field” (a term that only makes sense to me if the root metaphor is a multi-dimensional electromagnetic field, rather than a planar agricultural one). For my part, I know that when I’m working on a project, I often feel the need not to know about or experience work that is in some sense “related,” lest it compromise my efforts to find the proper form for whatever it is I’m doing. In any event, consigning the works of such different film- and video-makers as, say, Jana Sevcikova, Dorothy Cross, Sergei Dvortsevoy, Pedro Costa, Rosalind Nashashibi, Sharon Lockhart, Alexandr Sokurov, Steve McQueen, or Phil Collins exclusively to either the avant-garde, or contemporary art, or documentary, makes no sense.