"For Shadowing" at C for Courtside [Review]
For Shadowing: Josh Azzarella, Martha Colburn, & Robyn O’Neil at C for Courtside
By Brianna Bass
C for Courtside’s second annual time-based media exhibition, For Shadowing, opened in Knoxville in March 2019. Audio-visual ephemera from films by Josh Azzarella, Martha Colburn, and Robyn O’Neil set a mysterious atmosphere in the industrial concrete space at 513 Cooper Street, into which the viewer descends via open stairway. Abstract, seemingly randomized ringing tones melt together with specific narrative sound effects. Two projectors at the center of the room cast the work of Azzarella onto one wall, and consecutively rotate works by Colburn & O’Neil on the opposite wall. The darkness acts as ether, from which each artist has laboriously conjured a view into a unique imaginary world. Curator Lynne Ghenov specifically chose these works to engage the spirit of Big Ears Music Festival, a nationally recognized celebration of experimental music and media which takes place annually in Knoxville.
Josh Azzarella’s film Untitled 177 (Roesch and Schlage) takes Steven Soderbergh’s edition of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 Space Odyssey as its base. In Untitled 177, the iconic film is obscured by apparent glitches that flit in and out of each movement like a veil of holographic ribbons. To create these aberrations, Azzarella applies an algorithm to the chromatic data of the film, “sorting the pixels in each color channel in order of saturation until pure hue or pure blackness is encountered.(1)” The data is then reformed into an evolved image that glitters and emits shards of bright primary light. Familiar scenes become strangely animated, as if we are seeing a new field of energy. The colors are a mask, and yet they are part of the original data, present all along.
Azzarella is interested in the way our busy minds overlook information, and how internal images and memory are composed. He further isolates, modifies, and reassembles elements of the film by recording specific color channels with a special camera and translating their wave frequencies into sound. This manifests as the otherworldly soundscape that permeates the gallery with a tinnitus-like ringing in an unpredictable pattern of tones. Drawings are produced by analyzing the sound in 2001 Space Odyssey and other iconic films, dragging one pixel at a time across a canvas. Azzarella’s process hints at an essential form, of coagulated essences which are hidden by the procession of time. If we could have access to an image of all sensory perceptions, free of the filters of preference and linguistic fluency, perhaps the world would look more like these film constructions, aural compositions, and sound-based drawings.
Martha Colburn’s film, Western Wild, How I Found Wanderlust and Met Old Shatterhand is a dizzying compilation of animation: stop motion, painted images, photographic collages, and other elements of live film. The film creates an imaginary space where the animator (Colburn) narrates her journey of making a documentary about Karl May, a famous German author who wrote passionately about the American West, despite never visiting it himself. In her film, Martha Colburn writes back, creating a mythology of Karl May and examining the Wild West aesthetic in contemporary contexts.
In her blog, Colburn reveals that she was brought up in close proximity to guns, sharing many encounters with the trauma they cause. Her work engages this dark knowledge to peel back the old romantic Western “wanderlust,” revealing an undercurrent of violence and anxiety that continues in our country today. Colburn taps into a cap-gun aesthetic, portraying stick-ups and kids in Native American costumes, painting bright, cartoonish blood and viscera over collages of old photographs. The whimsical, adventurous materiality of the film allows a playful fantasy to be transmitted, yet withholds no gory consequences. Nearly-romantic imagery and subverted iconography are smashed together with intense images of military violence, racially motivated massacres, modern day protests and riots. The effect overwhelms the viewer, challenging the ease with which we absorb picturesque narratives.
Though wry and incisive, Colburn’s film is at times poetic and innocent. She states that “in Western Wild we witness a phantasm of the movie screen, which opens up into chambers of forgotten histories, restless fragmented dreams, lost honor and blind hope.(2)” Physically, the animation is as hypnotic and scintillating as the mythologies that surround the unknown, inspiring the exploration of past realities, present issues, and future wild terrains.
Robyn O’Neil’s We the Masses capitalizes on a sense of slight extra-dimensionality to captivate and concern viewers with a strange apocalyptic narrative. O'Neil is well known for her monumental graphite drawings which feature vast landscapes and surreal human interaction. We the Masses was developed from these drawings at Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School, with animator Eoghan Kidney. In the film, we follow a character who falls from the sky, encounters civilization, experiences apocalypse, is almost saved, and instead drops into the sea.
The mysterious mood in We the Masses is set by the near constant presence of a dark, seething sky, ash falling like snow, and sweeping landscapes. O’Neil manages to keeps us tethered to this world by utilizing a vast spectrum of scale. The film repeatedly moves between sweeping distant views, where the figures are minuscule and identical, and more intimate scenes at height with the figures. The abstract cellular or atomic orb serves as a climax of scale. The observer’s ability to oscillate between these perspectives generates a broader understanding of our own significance in space. By inserting humor into this dramatic setting, O’neil makes the figures cherishable in comparison to the surrounding barrenness. They wear track suits and form human ice skating pyramids; despite the absurdity, we are reminded why we like humans. As the film closes, the main figure willingly drops into a sludgy, tumultuous sea, where every person hitherto detailed has just perished. The effect is more tender than dark, as if to suggest: this world may be a seething mass, but it’s our seething mass.
Josh Azzarella, Martha Colburn, and Robyn O’Neil’s films employ such meticulous craftsmanship in fashioning alternative worlds that the viewer is drawn in unimpeded. Each film’s unique strangeness gives us enough distance to reflect on these worlds in the context of our own. Peeling back the layers of the screen that seem to separate us from our true natures, these three artists lead viewers to an expanded exploration of the inner workings of the mind, of undetected influences in our technology, narratives, and spirituality.