Deborah Stratman by Pamela Cohn

Sound, image, espionage, and methods of control.

Deborah Stratman 1 Bomb

Still from Ball and Horns: Desert Resonator, Steve Badgett in collaboration with Deborah Stratman, 2011. Courtesy of the artist.

Deborah Stratman displays great mastery at subtly interpreting the subconscious frequencies and amplitudes that give shape to our common experiences, illuminating the viewer through her distinctive representations of power, control, and belief systems. Working within a multiplicity of media from film, video, and audio work, to drawing, architecture, and sculptural projects, she has received Fulbright, Guggenheim and Creative Capital fellowships over the course of her career. For the last decade, she has taught in a multi-disciplinary arts program at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

One of five artists to receive the 2014 Herb Alpert Award in the Arts—an unrestricted prize of $75,000 given annually “to risk-taking mid-career artists … at a moment in their lives when they are poised to propel their art in new and unpredictable directions”—Stratman makes work to engage her perpetually inquisitive mind, a mind that asks a lot of complicated questions, ones to which she really never expects to receive answers. And if she does receive answers with too much facility, it’s likely she’ll decide it’s not worth pursuing after all.

The editing of her film and video work is distinctive, and—perhaps, oddly—reminds me quite a bit of the work of Armenian director, Artavazd Pelešjan, also a brilliant essayist and theorist, who created highly poetic views of life on celluloid. Pelešjan is also known for developing a style of cinematographic perspective known as “distance montage,” and this is something that Stratman does with high proficiency, as well, particularly with sound, combining perceptions of depth with various visual entities on screen to sometimes uncanny, but always mysteriously moving, affect.

I met with Stratman most recently last October in the Czech Republic at the eighteenth edition of the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival where she was to give a master class and also serve on one of the juries, a particularly intense task at this festival where jurors are expected to view seven to eight films a day in order to deliberate on as many as forty films in one competition. We managed to carve out a bit of time between her screenings for a quick bite of lunch at a deafeningly noisy café in the foyer of one of the cinemas. Stratman’s latest film, called Hacked Circuit, was also in competition in the Fascinations Section at Jihlava. It is dedicated to both Walter Murch and Edward Snowden and won the prize out of thirty-three other films in its category.

Hacked Circuit, a title that beautifully plays upon many ideas presented in the film, is a fifteen-minute piece shot in one take, with superbly realized camerawork by Norbert Shieh. Before we see the context within which the initial sounds we hear are embedded, footage of a mysterious location is accompanied by audio fragments from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film, The Conversation, starring Gene Hackman, specifically the scene where he frantically searches and tears apart a room in order to uncover the “bug” he is convinced has been planted there to record his telephone calls. Stratman uses a Foley studio in the back streets of Los Angeles as her set, exploring violations of privacy by political powers while simultaneously illustrating the power inherent in the various illusions and conflations of our perceptions of sight and sound.

Pamela Cohn I appreciate your work for very specific reasons since I have similar obsessions, not only about the ideas behind certain things but also their physical manifestations. Your various explorations move through so many doorways. Can you talk a bit about the process of how various pieces coalesce?

Deborah Stratman I can’t say I know ahead of time what the entry points will be. Nor do I have preconceptions about what different levels of egress might present themselves. It’s more that I’m conscious about not providing one single diagnosis to whatever question the film puts forth, since I’m never attempting to diagnose anything in the first place. I want to come at things from a place of unknowing. I make because I don’t know. I get really frustrated watching films with a pedantic attitude that states, “Now I’m going to show you what I know.” I don’t want to experience a work of art just to be lectured to.

I want the forms of my pieces to be open enough to accommodate the very different ways people take things in and that’s why there tends not to be any specific methodology when I begin a project. I’m asking questions, trusting my audience to experience visual poetry and different audio-visual structures that say as much as language can. I like if the registers of the film can be multiple, to accommodate the different ways people pay attention via story or landscape or performance, in order to watch somebody move with agency through the world. I am very conscious about when I want to shift filmic modes. Cutting from a section that’s causal to one that’s more sculptural is a way to choreograph the mental distance from which a viewer experiences the film, how closely or vaguely they’re paying attention. I like controlling all that. 

In classical cinema or whatever kind of cinema you might be making, the point is to utilize this aspect of surprise and suspense, to utilize ambiguity, to use conviction, as well as doubt. It’s as much about the experience of reception as it is about cinema.

Deborah Stratman 2

Caballos de Vigilancia (Surveillance Horses) Public Sonic Sculptures, Deborah Stratman in collaboration with Steve Badgett, 2008-2009. Courtesy of the artist.

PC Let’s talk specifically how all this is manifested in Hacked Circuit. At the moment, I’m living in the eastern part of Berlin, and paying attention to the ways in which non-Americans take in this information about the NSA and Snowden, transparency and privacy and the ways and means in which we know we’re being monitored now by government agencies via social media and other avenues. The Stasi was the most exhaustive spy organization in world history, making the East Germans the most spied-upon people. For a great majority, even today, confronting the past means confronting that legacy. 

Now, since Snowden’s exposure of NSA dealings, there’s a different level of knowledge about our complicity in all this, dramatic outcries against the intrusiveness of it aside. The privacy/exposure conundrum is really disorienting.

DS It is, but we all rely on the convenience, on that collapse of space/time, that these forms of media have given us. We can participate fully, and most of us do, despite our suspicion of how this is all working. You and I were talking yesterday in a kind of joking way about how we are able to “outsource” part of our brains, storing part of our thought processes inside this digital sphere where our communication utilizes infrastructures that are not metabolic or actual. By default, we rely upon a system that’s necessarily outside of us, and likely corporate or state-controlled. I mean we have to function in the world, and that’s the era we’re in, unless one chooses to go the monastic route.

PC What sorts of questions were you proposing while making Hacked Circuit? Your homage to sound in cinema is executed in very explicit and powerful ways, beautifully modulated with the visuals. You use a Foley studio, an actual—meaning, not virtual—space where reproduction of sounds is created and recorded to add to a film’s soundscape. You unmask this sort of clandestine art form since the best Foley artists’ work should be so well integrated as to go unnoticed. This is offset by the ways in which you also play with the trickery of surveillance and eavesdropping, where sounds can also be misinterpreted because we can’t see or identify their source.

DS Once production started, Hacked Circuit was a pretty succinct film to make because it epitomized a lot of the thinking I’d previously done around sound—that sound is half of a film and that it also functions as a strong mode of social control. This is something I’ve explored in my recent installations, the way sound is used subversively, sometimes militarily, as surveillance or camouflage. But while sound may be half of a film, we don’t come to it with the same critical faculties as we do to images. 

Sound is all around us in a 360-degree way. We rely on it to cue us as to what kind of physical environment we’re in. When you’re hearing something, you’re in it. You’re not in front of it, right? You’re inside the sonic environment. Whereas when you’re looking at something, it’s there in front of you, especially in a cinematic encounter. When you’re listening, you’re in the middle of sound, so you’re deeply connected to the here and now. Consequently, there are many belief structures that emerge out of information sound gives us that we take for granted. We don’t tend to pick it apart or analyze it as carefully as we might something visual because we lean on it subconsciously, and we’re easily fooled by it. That’s why sound is so subversive and so well suited as a mode of control. 

As someone who wants to have complete control over my audiences, sound is an appealing zone to master. Yet I’m also attentive to manipulation. When I am in a really quiet environment, I notice how much lower my anxiety level is because of that missing layer of white noise. We’re sitting in this incredibly noisy place and when we first walked in, you had immediate anxiety when you saw all the babies around us starting to cry, that your recorder would pick up all the ambient noise around us and possibly drown out our conversation.

PC Overwhelming noise makes me highly anxious. I am particularly sensitive to noise, almost to the point of joking that I might soon have to move myself to a mountaintop and enjoy that monasticism you mentioned. While I appreciate the irony of where we’re sitting right now, it’s tortuous.

DS Yes, it’s claustrophobic, I agree. There’s a guy in the Northwest of the US called Gordon Hempton who is lobbying for just one square mile of space where there are no planes flying over or any other mechanical noises to try and anachronistically get back to some kind of sonic place where sound landmarks and a sense of sonic time aren’t all manmade.

PC Physiologically then, what kind of effect are you after, or how do you orchestrate a purposeful sonic design, where you have those moments of silence, a total ceasing of any noise, manmade or otherwise?

DS In some of my longer films, I particularly like the operatic aspects of noise. I love the drama of a swell and then the literal dropping out of sound. An example of that is in O’er the Land. There’s a shot of a distant fighter jet and its sound slowly drops away to nothing, and then we cut to a man stepping off a bridge, still in silence, before a third cut to a very loud scene of men with flamethrowers. There are times when there’s a vacuum I want to create, a collapsing of space from something huge to something internal, in essence a sonic vertigo. Walter Murch and sound theorist Michel Chion talk about this, how sound allows you to play with physical scale very efficiently. 

Second Sighted

Still from Second Sighted, 2014, Deborah Stratman. Courtesy of the artist.

Hacked Circuit’s manipulation of space via sound is more like a Matryoshka doll. It’s meant to be nested so that with each layer there’s another order of control, another order of manufacture that’s revealed. The viewer should keep having realizations about what’s constructed and what’s not. By the end, you should start to distrust everything just a little bit. 

But it should still be accessible in the sense that, if you’ve never seen the film The Conversation, or don’t know anything about the NSA surveillance scandal, you can still have a complete experience. I want my films to work even if you don’t have “insider” knowledge. Hacked Circuit might function simply as a portrait of a Foley artist. 

I’m interested in the loop as a form that evokes a feeling of paranoia, where you’re stuck in a pattern, always returning to where you’ve already been. I think a loop reflects the anxious thinking that we’re having culturally as a whole. Feeling nervous about whom we can trust and, consequently, how we communicate with one another, the infrastructure for how we know one another, or what we lose when we’re using these networks. I also like loops because they ritualize form. 

I was interested in the poetics of simple objects having double identities, a latent sonic one and an obvious utilitarian one. Foley artists have things in their studio because of what they sound like when manipulated. The objects have double identities, as do the political implications of communication. There’s a lot of mirroring that goes on in the film. For instance, I like that an active Foley stage looks so much like Hackman’s apartment in The Conversation. They’re both chaotic environments, strewn with oddball stuff.

PC Did you location scout for this particular place or did you build it for the film?

DS It took two years to find this place. I needed a studio that was relatively small with both a front door and a back door and that was near a street corner so that going around the block didn’t take very long. In other words, I had very specific geographic needs. There are a lot of beautiful, huge sound studios in LA. But often when you go “outside”, you’re on a studio lot instead of in a neighborhood. The location we found was perfect. The two neighboring businesses were Ham Radio Outlet and Guns Direct. It was too good!

PC It’s also so evocative of Hollywood’s underbelly, where a lot of the most creative and innovative work is done, away from all the supposed glamour of the “lot,” which if you’ve worked on one is akin to a factory, not glamorous in the least. These guys on Magnolia in Burbank master a very specific skill and they become the go-to people. The best auto-body shops are there, too. Parts strewn everywhere but the workers who know what goes where have a particular kind of genius in how all this junk can be used to build something that functions. This film represents a similar build.

DS I don’t generally work with a script for my films but with Hacked Circuit there was a conceptual shape I had in mind from the beginning, and that’s fairly rare. I knew I wanted it to be a loop and I wanted it staged. I wanted this literal Foleying in a film that allows you to think about surveillance and construction, about how we believe in what’s around us, the systems of belief by which we navigate our lives. 

Other times, when I start a project, I’m following a group of people or one person and they are the ones dictating how I will shoot and what I’ll look at. So those pieces are conceived more in the edit. You could say they’re more in a documentary style, though to me, documentary just means you’re willing to cede some control either to fate, or other participants—or really anything besides your own agency.

PC I think “documentary” just connotes an openness that perhaps isn’t conducive to other kinds of work. Zelimir Zilnik was talking about this in his master class here, the modulation of this ceding and taking control of material in partnership with your protagonists, whether they’re re-enacting something from their own lives or fictionalizing certain episodes that stand in for something that’s only been externalized. As a maker you want to have some kind of correspondence with your viewers through your work. With whom do you correspond in your creative process and does that impact your decision at all in deciding on form? How do you know if something is meant to be an installation or a drawing or a film?

DS It varies widely, but for some of the more recent installation works, I have a strong back and forth with my partner Steve Badgett. Those projects are essential collaborations, from the conceptualizing onward. Sometimes, though, I’ll work on something for a really long time and not have much of a dialogue with anybody because the piece is too fragile to withstand it. Artist Lucy Raven and I have had a bit of a back and forth recently. I made a “correspondence” video once with Latvian filmmaker, Juris Poskus. We alternated, shot by shot. And more recently, I worked on a collaborative writing project with poet Jen Hofer called 99 Concerns, which also functioned like a volley.

I get a lot from the correspondences I have with my students, in particular, since they challenge me to think in a way that’s outside of myself. I teach within a cross-disciplinary program where there are sculptors and painters, filmmakers, and photographers. The critiques are done together in a big group and the conversations are so illuminating when they are outside of my wheelhouse. There’s a generosity to being a good critic. It’s the difficulty of it that keeps me excited, the push to keep learning about artists and histories and techniques. There’s so much I don’t know! As I said before, that’s probably my overriding reason for making art, my not knowing. It’s a way to think through something without language. I’ll write after the fact, but I don’t like to write beforehand. I’d rather think about orchestrating rhythm, framing, determining pressure … I like thinking via the more haptic, emotional work.

PC How can language hamper a creative process?

DS Because you’re being forced to name something before it’s ready. I don’t want the question I’m asking to be named. It shuts me down because it becomes a solution. Why keep working something out if you already have a solution? It’s a major problem for grant writing because you always have to describe, to some degree, what it is you’re imagining. For me, there’s a danger of over-resolving or illustrating something instead of letting the piece tell you things. Always, the best images and the best cuts, the best scenes, aren’t things I’ve pre-imagined. There are exceptions, of course, but so much of the time it’s nothing I could have envisioned. Writing shuts down a lot of those opportunities. 

People can be too facile with words. I don’t want to be misconstrued as someone who doesn’t appreciate the world of letters. But it’s that distance or gap where there are no words that keeps desire alive. There’s a quote that’s seminal for me from Charles Bowden in Blood Orchid [An Unnatural History of America], “What’s explained can be denied, but what’s felt can’t be forgotten.” And this from Heidegger: “Despite all conquest of distances, the nearness of things remains absent.” We’ve got everything at our fingertips. But what nearness really is has collapsed—the people not like us, the systems we’re not used to, all of it is suspect. I don’t know how to get around the fear that’s building up in people about the other.

Hacked Circuit

Still from Hacked Circuit, Deborah Stratman, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

PC We were practically indoctrinated with the notion that the world would change for the better given all these tools for connection; there would be an openness and expansiveness like never before. Instead, there’s collapse and a weird claustrophobia. Are you religious at all? The reason I ask is that I think discussions of spiritual practice are correspondences that are collapsing, as well. Not in intimate conversations, but in the public sphere.

DS I’m not religious in a denominational way, but I’m interested in faith and the social constructs of faith. I believe in people who embrace tolerance. What I’m wary of is using faith as a mechanism for defining the other, to draw lines, or as an excuse for warmongering. I’m wary of zealotry and the missionary impulse. I believe in doubt and ambiguity. Curiosity, for me, is at the root of happiness. When I’m struggling, it’s curiosity that always pulls me back outside myself.

PC Does art have an imperative to be useful? I’ve been working in the documentary film world where there is this compulsion to build a freaking tool kit to go along with your movie.

DS The usefulness should be making something that will help you or society get past things, stubborn problems that nag. I make some projects to help me get unstuck. But the work is not always coming from a place of philosophical troubles. Sometimes I just want to work with what delights me.

PC What’s delighting you lately?

DS Well, there are three things I’m working on now. One project involves jumping in and starting to film without any questions in mind. I hadn’t done that in twenty years. I just wanted to observe and be conscious of what makes me want to turn on my camera. I shot half the footage in Brazil and half in Jordan. Who knows what it will be! 

The other delight project is something I shot a couple of years ago when Steve and I were working on some public sculptures in the Yukon. I shot some Super 8 while I was there and I just haven’t had time to sit with it yet but it will be fun to edit. 

The third project I’ve been working on for five or six years now. I would not call it delightful, actually. It’s been a stubborn, painful film. It’s about faith, interestingly enough, and also about technology. It sort of came out of O’er the Land when I was thinking about the myths we construct around freedom, and the stories people have written about why we came to America. To have religious freedom was why many people journeyed there. I want to tie this together with the technical advances that offered a kind of transcendence you mentioned before. I don’t mean spiritual transcendence; I mean a transcending of the everyday that borders on faith like Fermi coming up with the critical mass equation that led to the first nuclear explosion. I want to put stories like that alongside stories of eclipsing one’s everyday borders, experiencing the sublime in the traditional sense of that word, something so big that we have no adequate language for it. The film is meant to be episodic, the episodes all set in the state of Illinois. It’s called The Illinois Parables and I’ve been working on it a long time, digging and digging and digging, but it’s really resisting me. It’s a very historical film, because history allows us to see the present. But then I ask myself, should it be more topical, more observational? There are so many things that keep hanging me up. But I’m so drawn in now that I can’t back out.

​The Illinois Parables

The Illinois Parables, Deborah Stratman (work in progress). Film still from 16mm workprint. Courtesy of the artist.

PC Trusting the work you’re making to find its form is a kind of faith, fully knowing that the parts that are organic and those that are intentional might intersect.

DS Yes, but deliberations like that don’t have to be prescriptive. It is really about listening. Maybe something isn’t going to work itself out in a film, but it’s well suited as an object in a landscape. Sometimes the desire to change mediums comes less from what the concept dictates than an interest in a change of speed or pace. It’s more of a reactionary impulse because I need respite from a mode of working. Maybe it’s something I can do in an hour instead of it taking five years. 

Changing soothes the part of my brain or body that’s overtaxed. Like when you sit for too long at your desk and your body starts to ache. Steve calls it “Taking care of the chair.” That’s why I like working in so many styles or in formats I don’t know much about because without taking some kind of risk, the work becomes predictable, and you can get stuck in thought patterns. I will sometimes deliberately put something in my path to trip on by working in a medium I’ve never tried before. I get nervous when I know a system too well. The expectations of trying something new are different because there’s no mastery there. It’s wide open. It’s in the accidents and the messiness that the most enlightening situations arise.

For more on Deborah Stratman, visit her website.

Pamela Cohn is a producer, writer, programmer, and documentary consultant currently based in Berlin.

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