ABOUT THE WORK
Alanna Simone asks Carolyn Radlo about her films.
A: Before we turned the recorder on, you started off telling me about how with the camera you're able to see things you wouldn't be able to see with the naked eye.
C: Right, right.
Something I've been wondering about is how much of what we see is as a result of training the eye. When people who have been blind since birth get eyesight restored, they still can't see. Their eyes are taking in impressions yet their brains can't fathom it. And people who've never seen a photo can't always read it. What if our eyes are getting images -- like the camera -- and yet we cannot compute it. Maybe a shaman can see like the camera can. I'm still a bit muddled by this, but it is a topic I'm interested in.
That was a digression. About the films: the film is both representative of an idea as well as actually a demonstration of things that are happening that are invisible to the naked eye. But that still make up what we experience- just because we can't register it doesn't mean we aren't experiencing it. Grass begins in that out of focus kind of way and then you're seeing the rhythm, kind of the random pattern and rhythm of the wind on the different leaves and then the camera continues to move in -- it's actually moving in deeper into the grass-life and in doing that then you're getting more of the camera effects. They themselves, the effects that are seen, are affecting the viewer- the prisms and things- which are all reflective of that unseen, in-between world that I'm interested in. That the thing that is there, that we're not quite aware of (unless we're really paying attention) and that's what this is again about, what you said, sitting in a field of grass but it's also sitting in a field of grass with attention -- and then the mediation is there. The camera is an in-between lens and it's affecting what you're experiencing and adding to it, so there are these different layers of the experience. But it is a natural experience - the camera is man-made, but the rest of it is still working with what is natural and seemingly random and these natural forces. And unpacking them. You have the experience of going deeper in kind of a trance like way. Because of the patterns that are there in the rhythm of the movement and the light refraction and the prisms which are all kind of mandala-like themselves. And going deeper and deeper, and then it comes back out again. So the whole piece is a going in, and down and into and then coming back up and out again. But always with that rhythm part of it. It's a silent film, so that rhythm is just in the movement of it. But the body takes it in viscerally through the vision.
A: You do, you have that - the physical sense of the movement as you're watching it...because you can feel the wind. You were talking about the idea of mediation in of your work, how even in painting, you were painting from photographs and the focus of artists in the 70s working on the idea of the mediated experience...
C: Yes, that issue of mediation, that our civilized life had become mediated. That everything was seen through images that were reproduced, reproduced over and over again in various ways. That we could live our lives through TV, or that it became our real life. That was how we experienced life. And that has always had this negative tinge to it, but my feeling is that there is benefit to it, that this is an amazing creation that we've got this camera which can show us things, and do things with lived experience-- adding a whole other way of experiencing our lived experience. So, even though I would be painting a dead body on the street, I wasn't actually seeing the dead body, I was seeing an image of the dead body that was created by a camera and that then I would take that image and further deconstruct it with more machines, xerox machines, and then work from that. In the same way here, the camera is mediating between me and the grass. But, it's adding to the experience so that it's a mediated meditation. I'm not sitting, I was sitting in the grass to create the thing and I was concentrating and paying attention, but I was doing it with the camera and the camera is this human-made creation that is enabling us to have this additional experience with my experience of being. Unpacking it, and showing us a deeper layer that we wouldn't get any other way. It becomes a contemplative act to watch it, to sit and watch it and be taken in by it.
That relates to some of the other philisophical things that are behind it. The choice of looking at grass, influenced by Leaves of Grass by Whitman, which is an enthusiastic celebration of life. That notion that leaves of grass are just as worthy as any other form of life. That we are all just leaves of grass, we come and go. So it's got that aspect to it. And it harkens to the things that Jesus says in the bible, about being as worthy as the lilies of the field who aren't worried about their next thing or whether they will have clothing or food, they are taken care of. And the idea that the natural world, which we are part of, and we can exist that way. Especially the closer we get to it. That's part of what the thing is about going deeper into this moment in the field. Deeper into the moment to find the meaning of being in the moment. And then the title of it, grass, also in another way is referring to grass as weed, right, marijuana. The whole thing of being stoned, that is what meditation can to for you, it takes you to an ecstatic place. Ecstasy being taken out of the body, but through a bodily experience.
A: Let's keep going. Now we're looking at the Nasturtium films. This is Nasturtium I, but I'm not sure that Nasturtium I and Nasturtium II are so radically different from each other that the descriptions would be.
C: No, they're both experiments in that notion of working with the out-of-focus, the camera capturing defraction. What did I say defraction was? [reading from notes] Defraction: the deviation of light when touching the edge of an opaque body. It's something that I've always absolutely loved and been attracted to, the way that light can reform form. These two films are combining different shots of nasturtium blossoms suspended and moving.
A: Is the suspension there to provide that kind of natural random movement like you have in Grass?
A: Because it's the same feeling of rhythm.
C: Absolutely. Exactly. Because they're moving and they turn. It's that thing of them being able to be turned. But suspension is also something I've always been interested in because of the way that it's a lot of what life feels like is being suspended. Like you're hung and you're waiting. You're in-between. Suspension has a lot to do with being in-between. The hanged man in the tarot is the card that has to do with being in an in-between waiting place. Life can be experienced that way. You're born, what happens between being born and dying, between those two transitions, you are suspended in incarnation. It's an old notion: the soul, instead of being free, is trapped or held in the body. So suspension has always been... I did many many paintings of things suspended upside down, and that's what that's referring to. So the flowers are hung upside down and in the hanging they are yet moving, turning and the light is creating this forming and un-forming which is representative of the life experience.
They're dancing, there's that feeling of them dancing. I loved having the two different images next to each other, different takes on the same action. The way that those two images interact with each other. The slightly different rhythm, the pausing. The tick-tocking kind of thing that happens which again, is kind of like what happens in time. We're suspended in time. Eternity is being without time. It's not forever, like in the sense of many, many years- eternity is without time.
A: Sure, not tied to the calender.
A: I think it's interesting, with this one you have on the left, the frame is out of focus, but it's in-focus enough that you can tell that it is a nasturtium, while the one on the right is so far gone that it's just abstracted shapes that bleed into each other and the the light bleeds them apart.
C: This is the use of the camera not as photography is often used for documenting. But this is the camera used in a very painterly way abstracting the image. It does something that unless I crossed my eyes, or maybe stretched my eyelids or something, I wouldn't be able to see or do. The Nasturtium films don't deal so much with refraction and prisms and things so much as that the light is bending around the object and reforming matter. It's light working with matter. That -- I just find that so absolutely engaging. It's my favorite thing.
A: It's interesting too, that you usually don't want video to be blown out, and this is purposefully using that, going for that look.
C: Yes, purposefully blown out. And that's something else that I think is true-- we are actually blown out by life. And light is the energy that we live on and it is doing that very thing, it is infusing us all the time.
A: The nasturtium as a flower, is there some symbolism in that choice?
C: It's traditionally the flower of strength and valor, but I was attracted to the complex petals and it's colors. Light can travel down through its complex structure.
A: Sure. Shall we keep going? Under Grace.
C: I describe it as "Not just any way but under grace and in the perfect way. This blessing phrase serves as an orientation to the unseen forces -- the winds of fortune."
A: It's very much in the same vein.
C: Yes, it's that natural rhythm that comes from, that is a random rhythm that we can't even... I suppose perhaps a mathematician could track it, but it has this sort of erratic movement to it that seems that it's not like music, but it's like... on some other visceral level it is an earth rhythm, it is a natural earth rhythm. The movement of the wind affecting this small cluster of plants. And then again, loving the way that light, the blown out light and the focus breaks up the form and abstracts it. Takes the edges off, and yet in this piece the camera allows for the focus on the foreground plants that really bounce back and forth in and out of the frame. So there's fore-ground and background. The background is what keeps on keepin' on even when we're paying attention only to the foreground. The background which makes the whole. The background which seems random but might actually -- why not? -- be just so -- and necessary -- on a scale we can't comprehend, well, maybe a mathematician could, not me.
A: You can't hold your attention on the thing that is in focus because it's constantly moving out.
C: Right, yeah. So this one has a lot more to do with what is going on in the background. The sort of expansiveness of the field in the background which supports the foreground. It's something we did in THE GRANDFATHERS, in The Background Comes Forward.
This idea in the phrase, "under grace, and of the perfect way," which is a blessing for what is happening or what you want to have happen. You add that to prayers. It's out of the christian prosperity movement, where you allow into your desires and your wishes and your prayers this notion that whatever happens you want it to come with the ease that comes with grace and the perfection that it fits in and doesn't harm anyone. You remember with it that you are part of the larger whole and your desires shouldn't deprive or harm anyone. I want to add to this notion that the perfect way is the natural way. This attitude reflects what it is to be natural, in synch with the larger order. This is what it is to follow the Tao. That is very much what this is about. The winds of fortune we think of as good fortune, but they're not necessarily that -- this is actually beyond that good and bad, good and evil designation which is a human designation. The Tao and nature operate without that. There is a natural unfolding that happens in life and it's perfect. Even if we don't understand it. It's perfect as it is and it is under grace. I think that is what I want to say there.
Saying "under grace in the perfect way" is a lot like, at the beginning of any ceremony or any endeavor a devout Hindu will say a chant or a prayer, a mantra for Ganesha. Ganesha is the god that clears the way, the path and opens the path to grace. He is known as the god who clears obstacles. But it's just a matter of allowing things to fall into their proper place. That's the idea of perfection that I'm interested in. That the natural order has perfection. It's not a man-made designation of perfection, but it is it's own perfection.
A: And that's why you wanted this one played at the beginning of the screenings. As a blessing.
C: As a blessing, yes.
A: Would you like to talk about Smoking?
C: Smoking, yes "the ambiance of smoking." What happens in Smoking? Smoking is another experiment using light and focus but this time on a human subject -- you. A human action and an environment. Experimenting with the idea of being present with the camera and allowing the camera to rove and move. To stay with an experience without directing it heavily.
A: Yeah, in that way like when you're sitting in a field of grass you just sort of, your eye follows this stalk and at the top of it it touches a tree so you look at the tree for a while.
C: Yes, it's very much about the gaze. Holding the gaze and allowing it. Working with the camera in that way. In a really intimate way. The intimacy is heightened by the fact of the nudity and the closeness in on the body at times. The pacing of it is about that. Just that- what the camera and what the framing that the camera does- how that can happen spontaneously. In the moment following something.
A: There's also an intimacy in that what you're looking at is a person who's totally comfortable, just sitting. It's not a performance at all.
C: Yes. And it is the ambiance of smoking, trying to capture that experience of having a cigarette. A cigarette break- taking a break -- taking a moment. The pause.
C+A together: "The pause that refreshes."
C: Which is all about being in between. In between moments, in between the doing, the main activity, the job, the task, whatever.
A: Sure. And I'm half-dressed, even I'm in-between.
C: Yes. it's in between and the focus is in between in a sense too. It's neither out of focus or in focus, it's really in between there.
A: You're so consistent.
C: Yeah! Without knowing it.
A: So much more interesting to discover consistency later than to set out with it in mind.
C: Yes. And for me it was just a revelation to see how by holding still and staying with something with these parameters, the focus and the closeness and the slow movement, that there would be these extraordinary images that would be framed. These compositions that would happen. The beauty of the different portions of it is just extraordinary. It's an absolutely ordinary moment, totally mundane and spontaneous and yet because of this combination of things, these moments of real beauty are there. And that's something that I guess has come up again and again. The idea of the beauty in things that are overlooked.
A: It's so much what the photographs that I was doing during that period of time are about - the beauty in the ordinary. Street scenes, and in individual pieces of trash on the sidewalk.
C: And this was also an experiment in working with filming the body in motion. Working with another person, working with that collaborative thing of performance. Something that is performance and isn't.
A: Yes, it becomes a performance because the camera is there.
C: Right. Exactly. Yeah. This was the first in, a series. The Red/White series is out of this film.
A: Shall we go on to the next one?
A: What I Remember. You say: "maybe this should have been called 'what I choose to remember' or 'what I'm willing to accept.' The object of contemplation is a corn dolly, a folk art construction made of straw."
C: Yeah, so what do I choose to remember? This film came out like a side film to THE GRANDFATHERS project. We filmed the corn dolly for that, but then we did this additional footage where I moved the focus in further so that the object is even more abstracted. So it's another meditative piece, watching what's happening to something suspended. Movement, random movement -- from breath in this case more than wind, but breeze. Something moving, turning and the light hitting it and refracting off of it or defracting off of it. The object itself in this case has a lot of symbolic import to me. It's a corn dolly, a folk craft which came out of ancient traditions, pre-christian pagan traditions of Poland, or of all of Europe.
The ancient practices of making offerings out of straw that could then be burned, you know like straw dogs, was taken over, incorporated into early christian practices and then Catholic practices. This corn dolly was a decoration for the Christmas holidays. A star shape, like a star with a tail -- like the star on high that announces Jesus' birth.
A: Yeah, like a comet.
C: Yeah, like a comet. Yeah. So, for me that's part of what I mean by saying What I Remember is what I choose to remember or what I choose to acknowledge or accept of my ancestry is the pagan, earth-based relgiousity of Poland, or of Europe as a whole. Earth and Sky reverence. I came at this thinking, This is worth contemplating. This is worth staying with. This is worth witnessing. This is worth.. what's another word?
A: This is worth.. .perpetuating?
C: Perpetuating, yeah.
C: Honoring, filming! Worth looking at. Worth seeing how it works in the world. Because it's in a sense, representative of the human interaction with the natural world. This is human enterprise. In a lot of ways it is a reflection of me and being Polish or Polish descent. And it's a reflection of me being specific about aspects of being Polish. The non-Catholic, non-chrstian aspects of being Polish. And all of that brings up all of the issues there are about being Catholic-christian-Polish, that's why it's a side issue to THE GRANDFATHERS. The Catholic-christian aspects of being Polish were linked to the Catholic-christian aspects of the Nazis and it was because of those aspects and those beliefs that many of the crimes that happened in the war happened, were able to happen
A: Were possible.
C: Were possible because they were aligned on that notion that they were, that being christian was a superior way of being in the world than the Jewish. Or Gypsy. Or pagan, etcetera.
A: Right, than anything else. Superior.
C: Superior, yes.
A: And it continues to be the same kind of issue, even with contemporary Polish people coming after the Soviet era, it's similar, the cultural associations are always with that. That the parts of Poland that I think we are willing to accept, or have nostalgia for, or are wiling to be identified with are not associated with the predominant through-line of Polish culture... in the twentieth century.
C: Right. This particular christmas decoration, this particular object is celestial. It's a celestial object that again, I feel alignment with, as opposed to the christian belief. And it's another suspended object.
A: Yes, it's another suspended object that's out of focus!
C: It's suspended, but it's not upside down. At least.
A: No, it's right side up, but it's meant to be suspended.
C: It is an example of the old forms hanging in there (no pun intended!) having staying power. Within this christmas decoration is an older symbol of rebirth.
A: So, I'm moving you along.
C: Cauda Pavonis: "above and below, side to side: the whole picture and everything possible. Multicolored, the peacock's tail. 3x3, an alchemical procedure revealing the true likeness of the omphalos of the continent."
A: The true likeness of the omphalos of the continent--
C: of the continent... which we call the Tetons.
A: Shh, you're giving it away!
C: This film, this is yet another by-product of THE GRANDFATHERS project. Cinematography by Alanna Simone of the Grand Teton range in the snow. There's the thunder sound. The rumble, the rumbling sound and then when the mountains, the lower mountains and the upper mountains, when they meet, when they come into alignment then there are big splashes of color. It happens three times in a row, the same procedure. There are chimes, just like in a ceremony. So what have we got going on here? We've got the upper mountains and the lower mountains. We've got the seen and the unseen. The mountains are often considered to be... well, the omphalos is a Greek word for the navel, and it's the center of the universe or the center of the world, of a particular world. So my sense is that the Grand Tetons are the center of the American, North American continent. In that sense -
A: symbolically -
C: Symbolically. Mythically. The omphalos concept is like the axis mundi, the pillar that goes from the top to the bottom, above and below. It's the centering place for the world. It's the axis of the world, that's what mundi means. But, we only see the visible. The top of the ground, we don't see the invisible, that it has an exact reflection below. It goes all the way up and all the way down. And when they are in alignment, when the opposites are in alignment, when the polar opposites are recognized and ar taken in at once you have the possibility of the flash of enlightenment. The flash of insight. Where everything lines up, there's this brilliant, um, brilliance of recognition. It's something that can happen, it's hard to grasp, it's fleeting. And it shifts out of that alignment.
In alchemy you're working with matter in order to come to these realizations. Here I'm working with imagery in order to come to these realizations. To reflect on these fundamental truths about the way the world is, the visible and the invisible which are opposites. The seen and the unseen, the black and the white, and etcetera, etcetera. So, when the alchemist, working with chemicals and different metals and materials, would achieve this moment when the thing culminates, where the ritual or the experiment culminates, there would be this experience of many colors. They were looking for this. This moment of color. The cauda pavonis moment. The many colors reflect the multivalent and multilayered truth of the world. So that's why there are many colors all in one thing. It's a concept that is in other cultures as well. Krishna wears the peacock's tail and it comes up in a number of different places in Hinduism. That's what cauda pavonis means, it's Latin for the peacock's tail, the tail of a peacock. It's the idea that the many colors and the reflective colors of the peacock's tail are the many possibilities of creation. Reflective and refractive... What is the word for that.. you know when oil is on water and its got a rainbow sheen.....
A: Yeah, I know what you mean
C: The, whatever that is... iridescence! Iridescence is the truth of the world. That's the truth of existence. It points to that notion that anything is possible and it's all beautiful.
A: You look so happy when you say that.
A: How about Quinta Essentia?
C: Oh dear...
A: Is it a really complicated thing to explain?
C: Well...Quinta Essentia is the fifth thing, the fifth essence. The term comes from alchemy. There are the four elements and then there is the fifth. The fifth thing is the unseen thing. So this is another film, another silent film working with light and refraction and focus. Using the camera to look, in a sense, look at things in the moment of transformation. Where something unseen is revealed. The film begins on the outside of a tree, in a wood and again there's the wind and the natural movement of the branches and leaves. There's also light reflecting off of other leaves, breaking through, and shadows and obstructions. I'm sitting with it and staying with it, with these events of defraction, reflection, movement and the leaves moving gently and up and down. Unlike all the other films, there's cuts to different incidences when the camera captures these magical moments where between the light, the focus, the matter, the form there's a breakdown of the containment of the image and you get these other, abstracted forms and shapes and... And... it's just below the surface, nearly unseen, just below the surface, elusive. And it's elusive, that part, that aspect of it, this film is about that. Is about how to capture that, to be contemplating, looking at, in a sense it's just the way the alchemist did -- looking carefully, carefully and then you get to catch a glimpse of it. The shamans always talk about that, the heightened awareness, keeping alert, keeping awake and then you see it. And the camera can do this, the camera is helping me to be able to do this. It's a process that for me, behind the camera, working with it to get to that place and then filming it. And watching it you're doing the same thing, you're staying with it, staying with it and then. This film, unlike many of the others, has cuts in it. Jumping from one instance to another. Staying with it, staying with it and then seeing another. Seeing it again. The cuts are how you hold it, then start again.
This one, even though it's titled something from alchemy, it was actually heavily influenced by my experience out there and framed by what I've learned from Casteneda. And about the shamanic experience. Of staying with something and being open to an experience until the transformation happens. and then there's a click, a shift and something becomes something else. The world is shimmering and it's full of light and that's a big piece of what the essence is, the quintessence. It's the very nature of what it is to be alive in matter, is light. The sparks of light.
A: Sure, light-matter.
You stay with it, being open to the glimpse -- the flirt -- that's from process work, the term flirting. The world is flirting with me and I flirt back. See where it goes.