Moving Stillness

Sitting in the darkened gallery, I spent a long time trying to discern if the back-projected image I was looking at was moving. The fact that the image of a snow-capped mountain surrounded by trees was accompanied by a field recording of wind and other sounds familiar from the outdoors seemed to suggest that it should move, as in a film. Yet, as I peered at the screen I could see no evidence of trees blowing in the wind, or of a bird flying across the sky. At one point during my visit, the screen suddenly went blank, the image reappearing a few seconds later, only, I think, lit slightly differently: the shadows shorter.

Moving Stillness (Mount Rainier) is a 1979 installation by Bill Viola, currently being shown at Blain|Southern in London for the first time since its original installation in Buffalo, New York. [1] In the centre of the gallery there is a shallow pool of water, into which three projectors (red, green, and blue channels) each project an image of Mount Rainier; their beams of light are reflected off the water on to the back-projection screen suspended above the pool, while sound plays from hidden speakers. Coming from the brightly-lit lobby into the space, the darkness was overwhelming at first, so much so that I did not notice the solitary gallery attendant until they came forward to run their hand through the pool of water.

The effect of this simple action was striking, for as the ripples spread down the length of the pool, the mountain – an image of immovability – disappeared; dissolved into bold, wavy lines of red, green and blue. The reason for the three projectors was suddenly revealed. This disruption lasted for a few minutes until the ripples died down and the solid mountain occupied the screen once more. I could not help but wonder how different the experience would be if the ripples were not instigated by a gallery assistant, if they just ‘happened’ every once in a while without human intervention.

Though it was not obvious at the time I visited the gallery, for at that point Mount Rainier was just a name, after a little background reading it became clear that it was not an arbitrary choice of mountain for this particular work. Not only is Mount Rainier the most glaciered peak in the United States, the source of six major rivers, but it is also an active volcano. [2] Though there has not been a magmatic eruption in a millennia, the mountain, if it were to erupt, is – along with nearby Mount St Helens – considered to be a high threat by the United States Geological Survey. [3] Knowing this, the ripples in which the mountain completely disappears take on a new significance, marking the mountain’s instability and the potential for catastrophe its rumbles might herald.

This in turn led me to ask what would happen if the work were connected to a seismograph, if somehow the ripples in the water were connected to the tremors of the Earth? This is not to suggest that the work is lacking in some way, I don’t think it is, but – to bring this discussion back to the topic of my PhD – to ask how data might be integrated into a display of analogue photography.

I have been thinking a lot recently about images displayed on digital screens: screens that are never truly static, but sitting in front of Viola’s piece, I realised I had, somewhat naïvely, not considered the potential of analogue photographs to ‘move’, to change. In 1897 Alfred Stieglitz wrote that, when projected, photography mutates into a spatial art, [4] but in a sense it also mutates into a time-based one. While it is true that all photographs – all artworks for that matter – exist in time, often they appear static from moment to moment. A printed photograph changes over time, the paper deteriorates and the image fades, but only very slowly. A projected photograph may too appear static from moment to moment, but, as Viola’s work makes abundantly clear, its appearance is subject to the conditions of its projection. In other words: interfering with the projection will noticeably cause the image to ‘move’, to change.

Viola’s work is not a projected still: according to the gallery information sheet it is a projected video, an “edit of real-time footage of Mount Rainier”. [5] Not real-time in the sense that it is being beamed live from Mount Rainier via a web-cam, but real-time in the sense that it has duration, it changes over time. There is no reason, however, that a similar principle could not be applied to a projected still, as in colour-transparency. It too could be projected on to water, made to bend and ripple as the surface is disturbed. Directing the projection through a sheet of textured glass might also cause the beam to split into its constituent wavelengths. An insect flying through the beam will cast its shadow on the projected image. These changes are a far cry from the changes that can be wrought on a digital photograph but they suggest a certain potential for the analogue photograph to be influenced by external stimuli without ever altering the ‘original’: the negative or colour transparency.

Interestingly, this is very like how I approach the use of photographs in a program like Processing, for the original photograph is never altered, but its colour values copied into a new image, and it is this I work on: a copy. The projected slide is not a copy in that sense, but there is a similar sense that the changes are ephemeral, in no way permanently altering the photograph. Perhaps even that it is not the image itself that is being played with, but rather the display apparatus itself.

If the projected image can be considered ‘time-based’, with the potential to change from moment to moment, then it becomes far easier to consider it as a potentially moving image. So, perhaps my original question – Is Viola’s work moving? – was the wrong one. Perhaps I should have been asking How is Viola’s work moving?

 

 

Notes

1.Blain|Southern, “Bill Viola: Moving Stillness (Mt. Rainier)” [exhibition text], (Blain|Southern: London, 2015)

2. United States National Park Service, “Mount Rainier” [online], http://www.nps.gov/mora/index.htm (accessed 9 November 2015)

3. United States Geological Survey, “Volcano Hazards Program: Mount Rainier” [online], http://volcanoes.usgs.gov/volcanoes/mount_rainier/ (accessed 9 November 2015)

4. Ingrid Hölzl, “Moving Stills: Images that are no longer immobile.” Photographies 3, 1 (2010): 102

5. Blain|Southern, “Bill Viola: Moving Stillness (Mt. Rainier)”.

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