Anxious Landscapes


“All of these films are about observing the landscape” Brian Doyle said of his Friday night program at UnionDocs, which appeared originally at Seattle’s Henry Art Gallery in 2007 in a slightly different form, “and looking hard enough at it to bring out stories not apparent at first look”. The eight films and videos in Glassing the Landscape Order aren’t necessarily the sort of thing that first comes to mind when discussing landscape film. There is nothing here like 13 Lakes or Fog Line, films which give us time to contemplate a wide expanse from a fixed point. By and large, there are few images in Doyle’s show that would typically be called landscapes at all. Most of the artists here break their geographical subjects into pieces, interpreting them through the accumulation of detail and the rhythms of editing. Doyle found his title in a passage from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in which a man and boy wander a post-apocalyptic world “glassing” their surrounds with a telescope, on the lookout for cannibalistic enemies. “Glass” as a verb in this sense is what interested Doyle about the quote, and it is apt here. While these films are sparsely populated, if at all, they all bear the imprint not just of a human presence, but a human intelligence actively surveying the terrain, searching for signs of trouble.

Doyle’s own Launch, which opened the program, is the most explicit in this regard. Doyle shot it in and around Kennedy Space Center. In medium-length takes, he shows us the launch site’s man-made armature and the subtropical Merritt Island Nature Reserve into which it was dropped like an alien presence. Bits and pieces pile up until suddenly a rocket takes off. Doyle had imagined a whole sci-fi narrative behind the piece: we are witnessing the last flight off a now uninhabitable Earth before savage nature takes over. We do not have to intuit the particulars of this story to locate the organic menace oozing from these plain, lingering shots. Doyle captured the Space Center while a tropical storm gathered around him. Each image is set against the swirling grey-blue of a sky threatening to erupt. In the sickly hues of Super-8 color stock transferred to video, we see wind rattle the marsh’s pale yellow scrub and bend gaunt palm trees. Foliage mantled NASA bunkers and the Center’s empty parking lots offer little comfort as alligators and manatees lurk beneath the surface of the water that surrounds, ready to reclaim what’s theirs.


Like Launch, Pawel Wojtasik’s Below Sea Level Buy is apprehensive about human life at the edge of the continent. A single channel adaptation of a 360-degree panorama installation, it is loosened further from the trappings of narrative than Launch — next to Wojtasik, Doyle looks like Howard Hawks. In rich hi-def Wojtasik quietly scans post-Katrina New Orleans with an emphasis on the city’s precarious geography. He eschews dramatic gesture and grand proclamation and his camera becomes something like a wandering eye, seizing on various of the city’s unique facets without speaking too directly about any of them. He is unafraid of traditional beauty, and each of his meticulous frames overflows with textural detail. But far from being a series of picture postcards, Below Sea Level radiates uneasiness. The slow creep of the camera, and the almost uncomfortable clarity of its resolution summon all the dread that has typified discussion of New Orleans in the wake of Katrina, and watching at UnionDocs this week, it was impossible not to see Wojtasik’s fixation on the oil rigs clustered around the port as a premonition of the BP disaster.

Where Below Sea Level gives us a city on the verge of being swallowed up by nature, Jem Cohen’s Little Flags finds anxiety within the built urban environment itself. Completed in 2000 from footage shot in lower Manhattan’s Canyon of Heroes after the victory parade for the first Gulf War, Little Flags Order renders the cramped, vertiginous byways of Lower Manhattan as something like another planet. On streets upholstered with ticker tape, Cohen’s camera registers the dazed faces of revelers on their way home, trying to puzzle out what brought them to such a spectacle. He alternates between regular speed and slow motion. Only once does live sound creep into the mix. Instead looming natural disaster, Cohen finds a landscape that gives material form to his cultural fears, casting the tribal patriotism of the display as a force powerful enough to remake its physical environs.

Skeptical as these works are of humanity’s place in nature, it is only appropriate that two of them explore the legacy of weapons testing and storage. Atomic Park, made by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster in 2004, begins in blown out color before snapping to grainy monochrome as it tracks a car entering White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, home to the Trinity nuclear test site. From a distance we watch a family share a picnic and play in the sand dunes. The surveillance video quality of the footage and our knowledge of the park’s history would be enough to inject menace into the vacation scene before us, but Gonzalez-Foerster does not stop there. Bubbling to the surface of the soundtrack are snatches of dialogue from The Misfits, Marilyn Monroe’s cry “MURDERERS” bringing Atomic Park from disquiet observation to outright indictment.

More than anything else in Glassing the Landscape, Bill Brown’s Buffalo Common situates an individual within a natural environment. Brown’s essay films, marked by his small obsessions and itinerant lifestyle, always stand out in a program and this is no exception. Steered by a voiceover delivered in Brown’s gentle lisp, Buffalo Common is the only piece here with more than brief, decontextualized snippets of the human voice. The film follows Brown’s tour through the small North Dakota communities that throughout the Cold War housed ICBM Missile Silos. He interviews peace activists and other locals, but Brown’s presence dominates. It is distinguished by his good humor and his associative imagination — where the other pieces funnel your attention towards one thing, Brown meanders, as captivated by buffalo statues and small town bar signs as he is by the weapons facilities. Despite this looseness, Buffalo Common is no less perturbed than anything else in Doyle’s show — Brown cannot even sit in the grass without thinking of the heavy ballistics just below the earth.

In a program saturated with dread, the videos here more concerned with formal play cannot help but seem a little lightweight. Skip Blumberg’s City Beat online is a 3-channel Minneapolis city symphony set to the competing clicks of three metronomes. In Heliocentric, Semiconductor, made up of Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt, give us four landscapes through which the sun passes in time-lapse. The video’s titular conceit is that the camera tracks with the sun, keeping it in the center of the frame for the entirety of its arc through the sky. Like too much sculptural video it trades on a thoughtless, unspecific sense of awe. Alongside the videos in Doyle’s program that so deftly isolate the specificity of their sites, this is not enough. Heliocentric‘s cold monumentality has little to do with the particularities of the world, physical or cultural, and everything to do with a dull, abstracted conception of natural beauty.

Doyle describes his own work as well as the work in the program as hybrid, “quasi-fictionalized documentary”, but all of the pieces here would qualify as non-fiction under even a strict rubric. What I think Doyle is getting at is the way these works anthropomorphize the landscape and speak through it. The filmmakers here imbue these spaces with characteristics born from our guilt about our abuses of the earth and our hopelessness in the face of its consequences. These are landscapes etched in ignorance of nature rather than connection to it.