Landscape, video, and the Anthropocene.
In one static shot, Lukas Marxt’s Reign of Silence (2013) observes a motorboat swirl in circles on the Arctic sea as concentric circles of ripples spread outward. While it lasts only a moment, the central theme that occupies Marxt is made visible: dialogue between human and geological existence. As he journeys to the far corners of the earth, the Austrian artist lets so-called “deep time”—the unimaginably vast timescale that describes geological processes—intersect with what humans consider to be “real time.”
Amsterdam’s biannual Sonic Acts Festival—now in its sixteenth incarnation—is built around such encounters. After all, we are in the age of the Anthropocene, an epoch when human activities have a fundamental impact on the global ecosystem. For four days from February 26 to March 1, 2015, Sonic Acts addressed these concerns with an ambitious program of performances, audio-visual installations, an academic conference, and an outdoor sound installation. Invited by this festival, Lukas Marxt gave a presentation on High Tide (2013) and Captive Horizon (2014), two of his video works, from among many recent projects, and those upon which the following conversation focuses.
Based in Belgium, Lukas Marxt has works currently on view at two exhibitions—“Landscape in Motion: Cinematic Visions of an Uncertain Tomorrow” at Kunsthaus Graz and “Perception of Landscape Today” at KIT in Düsseldorf.
Julian Ross In his book Ecology Without Nature (2007), Timothy Morton—one of the speakers at the Sonic Acts conference—proposes that we abandon the word nature, as it assumes our separation from it. Perhaps, in a similar way, your work positions nature as a central theme but finds imprints of activity and evidence of human interaction within natural spaces.
Lukas Marxt I’m always searching for relics of human impact upon nature. In the early stages of a project I try to find places that are hard for man to settle. When I arrive I stay there and attempt to observe the place from a perspective of “deep time.” As it’s not something that you can feel or grasp, I try to rescale myself as a human being within these spaces and focus on the traces I’m producing. At the Sonic Acts Conference, geologist Mark Williams said that 70% of the earth’s surface has been transformed by humans. Therefore, unfortunately, it’s getting easier and easier for me to find these spaces.
JR To what extent is the work preconceived before your arrival at these locations? Do you know precisely where to shoot before you arrive? For example, High Tide (2013) has a specific equation: a set-up between the sea, the mountains, the boat, and the camera.
LM The first stage is research, when I search for my object of interest—a landscape or a place where the natural forces are visible. In most cases, they are locations I’ve never been to before, so I only have a raw idea when I arrive. When I visited the Arctic for my three films Reign of Silence, Low Tide (2013), and High Tide, I wanted to experience spaces of emptiness and see how I would perceive time in such places. However, after sailing on a large motorboat with twenty-five people around Spitzbergen, I ended up with other ideas and began experimenting with the boat. By using the boat, I wanted to play with the idea of a subjective camera. I felt that just the small movements of swaying make the image of a landscape look like there is something carrying it. It also changes the position of the viewer of the landscape from observer to participant. The landscape as an image is overwhelming—very emotional—but the twist is the interference and my interaction with it. I can’t imagine myself going into a landscape that is totally empty and without evidence of human presence. This dialogue between humanity and nature is very important to me.
JR It’s interesting how you reveal your presence as not only a human in the space but as a human with a recording device. For example, when you go to the volcanic landscape of Lanzarote to film It Seems to Be Loneliness But It Is Not (2012) your presence is felt. The camera is handheld, and we hear your footsteps. In contrast, however, the landscape appears to be untouched, pre-human or post-apocalyptic. How do you come up with these “twists” and methods to reveal your presence in the space?
LM It’s a dance with nature. I ask for a dance and am led by my surroundings. During the shoot, I respond to whatever happens on a daily basis. If a topic comes to my mind, I keep developing it. I made three films in the Arctic and all three were exploring how to perceive the surroundings on a motorboat. I used the boat as a brush in the landscape and made time visual just for a moment. The film might end the way it starts, but in between, something happens which cannot be erased from memory. It somehow changes the weight of the image.
JR Reign of Silence encapsulates what you’ve just said. As the boat moves in a spiral motion, the ripples in the water leave no visibly lasting traces of interaction. Was this also conceived during your visit?
LM It was totally a response to the environment. We were using these boats—open Zodiac-style vessels—every single day to go on and off the shore. First I was filming from these little boats, but the results weren’t very interesting. But then, looking at the boats from a different perspective, I started watching them from the shore and directing their movement through radio communication.
JR The audience hears you direct the boat operator using this radio, and your voice interferes with the majestic landscape. It reveals that you’re not just observing but participating. Some other films of yours—like Black Rain White Scar (2014) and Double Dawn (2014)—are similarly single static takes, but your interactions with the spaces are comparatively passive.
LM Even though I’m more passive as an observer, you could actually say I interfere even more. For Black Rain White Scar, I particularly intervened with the audio track. I worked together with the musician Jung an Tagen to give the piece a bigger twist. The shot shows a cityscape in Hong Kong through some skyscrapers and down to a river. I was waiting for a storm, which arrived, and I saw darkness was quickly descending. I didn’t have much time to frame the camera but stood there until the storm covered the cityscape with darkness.
For Double Dawn, I went to Australia when a total eclipse was scheduled to take place and headed to a uranium mine. The eclipse happened a few minutes after sunrise, so it gave the impression of a double dawn. I wanted to experiment with the ways geological imprints and a large-scale cosmic event could interfere with the frame.
My films give the spectator a lot of time to think. They communicate with everybody in a different way—you’re invited to reflect on how you experience nature and how you consume time.
In Black Rain White Scar, on the other hand, the sound distances the audience. First you hear the original sound from behind the camera, but then the point of view of the microphone starts shifting in ways that makes you uncertain as to where you are positioned. Are we still in the forest? Are we now on the street, in a room or in a building? And then, the artificial tone interferes and completely takes over the field recordings. It foreshadows the storm for the audience.
JR Although you don’t physically interfere with the spaces for the films, you choose locations that show evidence of other human interference—namely, the city and the mine. In the case of Black Rain White Scar (2014) and Double Dawn (2014), this aspect is emphasized more than in your other work.
LM Definitely. In the case of Double Dawn, the idea was to get there a few weeks before to research and location scout in the zone of total eclipse. I arrived and the beautiful landscape of Australia was in front of me. Before shooting, though, I asked myself what exactly the shot would tell us. I realised it would just capture the event. It became clear to me that I needed to find a point where humans and nature met—a crossover. We were lucky to be able to enter the uranium mine and get a permit to shoot, but, in the end, the staff at the mine left us totally alone. Although they promised us everything in the beginning, they arrived late on the day of the eclipse and only took us to one area. We had to make changes to the plan, though I’m happy with the result. It’s not a spectacular shot in the image—it’s much more about the experience of sitting there for a half hour and noticing the little shifts in light. The sound was also very important, though we made some small touches afterward. The moment the eclipse took place the animals went silent because they had gone to sleep. We amplified this phenomenon in the sound mix.
JR The single-take static shot gives an impression of untouched reality. But, of course, you manipulate sound to orient or disorient the audience. Did you work on the audio more in Black Rain White Scar and Double Dawn than in other films?
LM I gave the audio the same credit as the visuals for these two works. I think audio is very visual and really important for slow films. You can always close your eyes, but you can never close your ears. The sound is telling much more than the frame because the frame is not moving. You have to tell the story around the frame with the sound. It’s not possible to just think in terms of the visual.
JR While watching your film Reign of Silence, I was reminded of land art—in particular, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970). Land art is an interesting challenge concerning the terms of exhibition because what was often displayed in a gallery or museum was the documentation of the work in the form of photographs, films, and instructions. To what extent are your films a documentation of your expeditions?
LM I wouldn’t say it’s a document of an event. I’m interacting with the landscape for the image and not for the space itself. I mark the spot and do a performance, but the act takes place in order to capture an image. I guess you could call it a time document. I wouldn’t call it land art because it’s just video. It’s got a sculptural presence, perhaps, in the exhibition space but not in the space that it was filmed. I would like to bring the outdoor location into the space of exhibition rather than take somebody to the location itself. I’m not interesting in initiating that exchange.
JR How important is the scenario of presentation for you? Your video work Two Skies (2013) has been presented on a small monitor—a bit like Yoko Ono’s Sky TV (1966)—facing upward and on a loop. Here at Sonic Acts, you’re showing films on a big screen with a powerful sound system.
LM It depends on each piece. Although I’m not concerned with the loop when I’m making a work, the beginning and end are often similar to allow the loop to function. But, in the case of Nella Fantastia (2013)—a fifty-five-minute work I filmed on an oil platform—I would show it every hour or so and put up a notice so people know there is a beginning and an end. That work is more of a narrative than a circle.
JR For your film Captive Horizon (2014) you used drone cinematography. Although drones are often associated with surveillance and military attack, here you’re observing landscapes with very little human presence. What interested you in drones?
LM Just as with High Tide, there are two axes within the frame. But Captive Horizon also operates on a third axis. You can do anything. There are no borders anymore. I experienced this when I went to film a volcano crater in Lanzarote, only to find the gate closed at 6:30 AM, which was when I wanted to shoot. I would’ve had to wait until 9 AM for it to open, and then it would’ve been too light. It was a powerful moment for me when I realized I could use the drone instead. I realized how mighty these tools are. You can go beyond every border. It becomes an extension of your body. This film was my first attempt to work with this method, but it will probably not be my last.
JR Although you’ve described the drone as an extension of your arm or eye, the reality is that we probably won’t be able to see with our bodies the way that drones do. In that sense, it’s a non-human perspective that has become possible with technology.
LM I wouldn’t call it non-human because we’re now so used to it. It’s no longer unknown. We’ve all seen it on Google Maps. Aerial photography has existed since we flew balloons. What interests me is that everybody now has access to it. It has sort of become a common object. I would no longer call it a god's-eye view because it has become so present. What interests me most is that you can steer it yourself and direct it. You can take flight and rescale the landscape in ways in which it becomes difficult to distinguish between the macro and the micro.
Julian Ross is a researcher, writer, and film curator based in Amsterdam. He completed his PhD on 1960-70s Japanese expanded cinema and is an advisor for IFFR Shorts at International Film Festival Rotterdam.