'Landscape as Archive' explores impact of physical environment on the screen

October 4, 2011

Produced by Eight Forty-Eight

Download Story
(Photo courtesy of CATE)
'Landscape as Archive,' a program of three short films, was on the bill for the Conversations at the Edge film series.

Landscape as Archive is a program of three short films exploring the way an actual landscape can be a repository for history – or even ideas. It plays at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Thursday, Oct. 6 as part of the Conversations at the Edge series. Film critic Jonathan Miller offered Eight Forty-Eight his take on the program.

We often conceive of landscape as something that presents itself to the eye. Whether a compelling vista, or an artfully composed painting of an outdoor scene, landscapes are something we see. But, that definition has significant limitations: it limits us to the surface and to the present. Past events, stories, and legends, also shape a landscape’s identity.  And what is underground, be it literally or figuratively, gives a landscape its character. The films screening in the Landscape as Archive program show vividly that landscape is a complex, multi-faceted, historical entity.

Mountain State, made by Bill Brown in 2003, takes us on a ramble across West Virginia,.  Brown films the historical markers that summarise the significance of a place, while his off-screen voice guides us. He lets his camera roll, so the viewer’s eye can wander through the scene, soaking in the details. 

In one of the first shots of the film, Brown runs through the woods, dematerialized by camera trickery into a ghostly figure in an orange poncho passing through the trees.  Yesterday’s stories haunt the mute places of today.  Borders, war, massacres, and archaeological relics coalesce with highways, power lines, and rubbish into a hybrid geography. Brown’s compilation of historical markers shows that the historical dimension of our environment has diminished. An important site may hardly hold our attention as much as an adjacent fast food restaurant.

The earth at times literally is an archive, a place where accumulated artifacts are stored.  Lee Lynch and Lee Anne Schmitt’s film Bowers Cave takes us to a spot in California where one such repository was once located. In Southern California in the 1880’s, a boy discovered a cave containing an impressive trove of Native American artifacts. Stephen Bower, an amateur archaeologist, promptly purchased the lot, which he then sold for profit.  Many of the artifacts disappeared into private collections, a portion of them now reside in Harvard’s Peabody Museum. 

The cache of artifacts appears to have been placed in the cave by a group of Indians in revolt against the influence of Spanish Colonial missionaries.  While describing this attempt to preserve their heritage and identity, the filmmakers show us what the place has since become.  The cave sits next to Chiquita Canyon landfill, where garbage from nearby Los Angeles is processed.  Over images of this ongoing burial, the filmmakers run text from Chumash Indian lore. They also show us images of plastic figurines of Native Americans and Spanish Missionaries.   The toys speak of how manifest cultural heritage masks a pervasive historical amnesia. They are a negative image of the artifacts the cave once contained.  Bowers cave, it turns out, is part of a restless landscape where cultural imperialism has left behind an enormous void.

Dear Bill Gates, a film by Sarah J. Christman, starts with the filmmaker composing an email to Gates. Christman uses her one-sided correspondence with Gates as a starting point for an essay linking the effects of mining on the landscape to the existence of a massive underground storage facility in a former mine.  That facility now houses the Corbis archive, the image licensing service owned by Gates containing more than 100 million images.  As Christman explains, images don’t endure, and very often our desire to see something exposes it to forces that promote its deterioration. Burying an archive in a temperature controlled vault serves to preserve it, at the same time, the archive is entombed, made inaccessible and a step closer to oblivion.

Musing on the mortality of images, Christman points to landscape’s instability as a repository for memory.  Imbuing a landscape with our personal memories creates a casual and ephemeral relation, whereas burying in a landscape the records of our cultural heritage makes evident assumptions of stability and permanence.

The digital technology Christman uses to craft her film challenges such assumptions. Although her email to Gates will be archived somewhere, and so remain nominally accessible, it is obviously a momentary and impermanent communication. The agility of her argument says much about the status of contemporary landscape: a cascade of dislocations and shifting interfaces, abrupt jumps from the virtual to the actual, sudden translations from screen to screen. 

The films in the Landscape as Archive program attest to the profound voice our environment has, a voice that speaks volubly about our identity.  These artists understand that a landscape is neither simple vista, nor pretty picture.  Rather they tell us that a landscape contains the accumulated residue and resonance of our selves.

Music Button: This Will Destroy You, "The World Is Our __", from the album Young Mountain, (Magic Bullet)