This essay will document my recent experimentation with white plastic sheeting undertaken in the studio each week and focus this research into a more tangible project outcome. It will also link my practice to theoretical research incorporating Butoh performance theory and the Bakhtinian notion of dialogism (areas I have been investigating in other subjects), with the intention of bringing a more precise theoretical component to the practical execution of this workshop. My intention is to outline my discoveries regarding the material aspects of the practice, specifically that of the plastic sheeting, but also what I see as the fundamental medium I am working with: Light and Shadow. Further to this I will frame this research as a precursor to what I am working towards; to use the plastic sheet ‘light painting’ to mediate a performance work and speculate how these two discrete approaches to artmaking can be brought together in an innovative way.
At the core of the research are simple set of questions:
- What happens when I shine a light through white plastic sheets which have been draped from the ceiling?
- How can I manipulate the light source and the sheeting in different ways to create interesting effects?
- What are the differences between live-installation and photo/videography of these components and where can the two intersect?
By focussing on the material aspects of the plastic I found some surprising outcomes. The primary feature is that the sheeting is semi-opaque. As such it diffuses the light like a heavy scrim, allowing some translucency when objects rest very close to the material. Here the light is indirectly bounced from the wall onto the sheet giving a ghostly effect:
This is distinctly different effect to a silhouette effect which comes when a light is thrown directly at the sheet, as we can see here – my hands are not touching the material at all (which creates some interesting possibilities with distortion and foreshortening, notice the asymmetrical arms):
I’m exploring the use of shadows specifically as a response to the William Kentridge exhibit The Nose in which he displays a range of screens depicting various shadow puppetry and dance routines, have made some brief notes on this exhibit here: <https://newaudiences.com.au/2019/03/18/fieldwork-research/> .
Other material aspects relevant to the project outcomes:
The plastic is very lightweight and susceptible to very small changes in air pressure, such that the very act of using a bright incandescent bulb as a light source (approximately 300W) will heat the air enough to create an immediate updraft across the face of the plastic. As such, an unencumbered sheet will drift according to its positional relationship to the lighting. When freshly unfurled, the sheet also carries an ionic charge, which encourages two sheets draped close to each other to cling together.
Finally, a key materiality of the plastic is it’s tendency to crumple when stored. I have deliberately accentuated this by not packing the sheeting neatly between workshops, so it’s been more pronounced as I have proceeded each week. The result of this is fine ridges and valleys occurring across the surface of the material which has proven a fascinating (and quite random) element to work with. Several different effects are immediately visible here where light is projected at an extreme angle across two sheets draped together:
D C B A
- The harsh light thrown directly onto the plastic creates a sharp ‘landscape relief effect’ (Visible Section A)
- This effect is noticeably softened where the two sheets begin to overlap (Section B)
- As the sheets are prone to undulate, sometimes casting a shadow, although the folds are still somewhat visible (Section C)
- Where the sheets overlap but are not touching, we can still see a diffused ‘landscape relief effect’, although quite different in quality (Section D)
Notably for this image: the light source is not an incandescent bulb, but a video projection of footage taken earlier in the workshop. I’m projecting a mediated image of the crumpled plastic sheet (taken from below) onto itself. I wanted to do this as a logical extension of the experimental workshop process; a means to extend the abstraction of light and shadow into texture, and a visual play on what had been done before.
However there is a deeper theoretical notion underpinning this: that of the nature of meaning and how it comes to occur. Mikhail Bakhtin theorised a model for language by which meaning is created through repeated ‘utterances’, the accumulation of which allow for a refracted meaning to exist as the speaker/listener simultaneously interpret a language event (or utterance) in the context of all past and future iterations of how they imagine that utterance to occur (Lodge, 59). While Bakhtin’s theories of dialogism apply primarily to the language of literature, I am interested to explore this process in other mediums as well.
So, the notion of projecting a video of the medium of experimentation back onto itself is an aesthetic abstraction of light and plastic; but also a formal method to examine this process as it occurs, almost at a granular level. We can track each utterance of the language for the work as it is being created. This is why I have been so painstakingly methodical in these iterations, from the basic white-on-white of week 1, to the folded/crumpled landscape relief of week 2, and now the projection of one iteration onto the next, even something as simple as this can begin to hybridise layers of complex signification even before introducing any formal language component.
In the above image top left corner (Section E) the photograph takes on a violet tinge. To the naked eye this is not apparent, as the projection is simple white-on-white, however as that has been now mediated five times (twice by DSLR and once by video projection, plus photoshop compression and this final mediation to a computer screen) the observer can find further material aspects of the medium, specifically: light as a spectral phenomena. As the projection device must break the image down to its finite components, this aspect of the medium becomes apparent when being photographed at a fast shutter speed. In this instance it’s relatively slow at 1/30th second but we can see a shadow of the Red and Blue elements combining. Other images taken during this workshop are more startling:
Raw image of white plastic under video projection taken at fast shutter speed 1/160th second.
These two images were taken at 1/160th second just moments apart.
These images demonstrate how quickly this process of dialogism can take place, as the utterance of a single image played recursively into itself and broken down into granular moments can drastically alter and reflect a range of possible ‘meanings’ within just a few iterations.
In order to collate this research into a work of live art/ performance I will introduce a human aspect to the process, and devise an approach which combines the same methodology of dialogism into a performance mode. The human component will comprise of two diametrically opposite positions: that of the audience and the performer. I intend to achieve this through a closed-circuit video feed from the installation to an isolated performance area, with a second video feed projected back onto the installation. The process will be as follows:
- Audience approaches installation, ideally they will be able to enter the ‘frame’ of the work and be surrounded on all sides by the plastic sheeting (as a kind of analogue immersion)
- As I observe their movements in relation to the installation, my own movements will be improvised in response, with a video feeding back into live projections, forming a dialogue between the audience and the art
- The movement aspect of the work will be abstracted, incorporating some of the early experiments of shadow-play and material aspects of the plastic sheets as already discussed (the next phase of development will investigate these outcomes in more detail)
As such the audience will be able to engage and interact with the performance to create something unexpected. Early examinations of this process have shown some promising results:
The image of my hand shadow is projected onto the sheeting. This can be abstracted or distorted a range of ways by positioning the light source or the projector at various angles.
It is also possible to forgo the role of performer entirely and engage the audience to step in, here I asked a classmate to create the shadows for the live feed so I could photograph at a different angle, and she immediately began playing with different shapes and shadow-puppets. The projected image of her hands is also visible in the frame which adds an interesting touch.
I will continue to investigate different possibilities for the live-feed/ performative components and see what emerges, however as a guideline for moving forward I intend to incorporate some of the Butoh theories I have been studying – specifically as dance being a non-representational form of movement, instead allowing the environment and imagination to guide the performance (Baird, 4).
Assuming I will be the primary agent of performance within
this framework, the movements will be generated within the parameters of
responsive, oppositional and intuitive to the behaviours of the audience as
they engage with the work. By doing this I intend to further investigate the
process of dialogism and iteration as a function of meaning within an abstracted
and stylistic performance work.
Baird, B 2011, Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh : dancing in a pool of gray grits / Bruce Baird, Palgrave studies in theatre and performance history series, Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
Lodge, D 1990, After Bakhtin: Essays on Fiction and Criticism, Routledge, London.