Drawing upon influences in experimental filmmaking and post-structuralist philosophy, Fine Art graduate Sarah Walden (MA, Birmingham City University) considers the boundaries and sensations that can emanate from the surface of the moving image. Working across digital and analogue film, she plays with the imperfections of her chosen media – and the potential for chance occurrences. Her four-channel video projection, Bodies of Pleated Matter, folds together multiple images and cultural references to stimulate and challenge the viewer’s cognitive interpretations in an increasingly dematerialised world. Walden’s film has been selected for New Art West Midlands 2018 and is showcased at AirSpace Gallery in a purpose-built screening room until 31 March.
Selina Oakes: Bodies of Pleated Matter examines our relationship to surface in an image-saturated society. How does your work provide a respite from the mass of visual data present in our everyday lives?
Sarah Walden: Much of my work deals with the idea of overload. Bodies of Pleated Matter bombards its viewers with visual information that is created by overloading processes (electronic glitches, material disruption and distortion), which are combined and wrapped around the viewer in order to foster a confrontation with the mechanism of sensory processing. The sheer volume and variation of speed of information can force a cognitive stop, enabling the experience of the work to become a kind of flattening whereby one can’t immediately draw a recognisable meaning from it. It’s less of a respite, and more a series of questions posed to the audience: where is your body when you engage with visual data? Are you fully engaged with your senses when you navigate that space?
As a viewer, you are encouraged to confront the idea of surface: there’s the screen in front of you and there’s the truth of light hitting that screen. The celluloid film has a material surface that is highlighted by its obliteration. Your skin becomes the surface that the light seeks if you hold your hand up in front of the projection. The imagery itself is about surfaces – water, the body, the threshold between land and sky – and how we navigate those surfaces. It asks you to consider how the surface of water wraps around your body, and within that consideration, how do you determine your own boundaries?
SO: How does the piece feed into your wider practice and research?
SW: Boundaries, edges, screens and materiality are huge parts of my practice. I’m interested in how things that don’t have a tangible material existence, such as digital data, can have such material effects on humans. We’re becoming transhuman. My research focuses on the breaking of technologies – both digital and sensory technologies – and how we can find new languages for engagement with the senses.
My experimental media practice and research into the lived experience of neurodivergence (autism, synaesthesia, dyspraxia, dyslexia, ADHD, etc) unpicks the frustration I have with living in such a heavily mediated world, where all this visual information needs to make sense intellectually before it will be given value and attention. I want my work to create new narratives that make a different kind of sense – one that emanates from embodiment and discusses the experience of living in bodies that behave in surprising and sometimes uncomfortable ways.
SO: You work with both found and filmed footage. Why is it important for you to create a dialogue between old and new imagery – both of which appear anonymous in the piece?
SW: I think when you start to question surface and the materiality of film, you have to engage with the fact that film is a time-based media. I wondered how material our relationship is to time: does it have a surface on which we can skate and make new stories? The piece spans 50 years of film and video technology, so the inclusion of found footage from the 1970s sets the scene in that regard. I also want to challenge the notion of narrative and whether our filmic gaze has changed with the development of digital media.
I’m always struck by the reverence with which home movies are shot on Super8. Now, it’s so much easier to film when we all have home movie cameras in our pockets, and that shows in our framing: we’re happy to cut heads and legs out of frames and camera shake isn’t a thing to be avoided anymore. It’s become a throwaway technology.
I filmed and developed my own celluloid because I wanted the experience of scarcity and preciousness – the anxiety of wondering whether the footage has been correctly exposed and testing the tolerances of the celluloid itself through the development process. I had to wait for images, and this is beautifully uncomfortable in the age of instant gratification. Meanwhile, in narrative terms, the similarities between the old and the new footage outweigh the differences. We’re still interested in our families and the places we visit. We love our pets and gardens and children, and we want to preserve them.
SO: While split across a 4-channel digital video projection, some of the scenes we experience are shot on Super8. What draws you to celluloid film, and why do you transfer it to digital?
SW: Much is made of the analogue versus digital debate but I’ve never seen it as a binary or exclusionary relationship. Digital video and celluloid film will give you the same product – a moving image – but they are vastly different mediums in their form and functionality. The celluloid film I used has a material surface that is ultimately obliterated by mechanical means: the emulsion on its surface has been scraped back to separate the layers of colour. Some of it has been developed in experimental conditions so that the dirt and noise of imperfect conditions are aesthetic elements, choices that are made by the materiality of the media but can also be directed by the artist. I also used VHS tape, made from digital and celluloid film and then forced through a homemade dirty video mixer. This makes the image jump and swim: it bottlenecks two and sometimes three channels, and makes unseen decisions about which channel to prioritise at any given time. Transferring the footage to digital means that I can push the analogue in alternative directions.
SO: Technology is both an enabler and a disabler. Have you experienced any challenges working with such an ephemeral medium?
SW: The short answer is, of course, yes. I always mutter when I’m installing work that I should be a sculptor or painter because I wouldn’t have to deal with the temperamental nature of technology. Of course, that’s an incredibly flippant thing to say, as all art forms have their production challenges. I have probably run the gamut of technological challenges since I started making film work 5 years ago.
Luckily, my collaborator Ollie MacDonald-Brown is one of those amazing people who just seems to be able to engineer his way out of any technical problem, and of course a problem shared is a problem halved. We once did a performance where we had 100s of feet of film loops draped through the gallery and we were distressing them live on two projectors: I had the 8mm and he had the 16mm. Unfortunately his projector broke about 10 minutes through the performance after someone stood on his film loop and creased it. He spent the first hour of the two hour performance trying to fix the projector. Eventually, he accepted its demise and pulled the film through by hand, which resulted in some beautiful burn patterns. By contrast, I only had to deal with a couple of broken loops. Most recently, we had an issue with Bodies of Pleated Matter at the private view at AirSpace Gallery. The computer that was handling the projection mapping crashed and we had to run it off our backup.
There are always questions of how the work gets turned on or off each day in a show: it’s quite terrifying to entrust your work to someone else who isn’t a film and video technician. That being said, digital technology makes moving image works much more accessible than celluloid: babysitting old projectors is not something most people would feel comfortable with, and rightly so – it’s a complex skill. Turning a digital projector and media player on is much easier and allows for moving image to be part of a wider discourse.
SO: What does it mean to you to be part of New Art West Midlands 2018 at AirSpace Gallery?
SW: When I submitted my proposal for New Art West Midlands, I didn’t expect to be selected largely because of the complexity of the work. I’m delighted to have been proven wrong and grateful that AirSpace Gallery rose to the challenge of its realisation in such an enthusiastic and supportive way. Glen Stoker (AirSpace Co-Director) has gone out of his way to make this piece work, wrestling with building the screens single-handedly and learning all of the technology required to make it work every day. He made all of it as easy as it could possibly be. Overall, it has been an amazing experience and I’ve learned so much more about my own piece and practice as a result of showing in the gallery. I think it was the only place that Bodies of Pleated Matter could have lived, and it has been lovely to see it working again in its new custom-built home.