Wayfarer’s Trail

Sightlines Journal, issue 2, 2017

Name: Marsha Berry
Film: Wayfarer’s Trail
Length: 5 minutes

Research Statement

Wayfaring …
the sound of the word rolls
like  dance steps on a path
between two points
subtle fingerposts
marking the way
forward
ever on …

(an excerpt of the voice over of the poem from Marousia’s blog https://wordpress.com/stats/day/marousia.wordpress.com)

The coastal path winds over the top of the bluff through indigenous flora including banksias and sheoaks. The sky is bright blue — the shadows are sharp. The sea is choppy with white crests. I tread lightly, so many footprints — human and animal — piping seagulls, a counterpoint to the restless sea. A perfect moment — I posted photos of various details of sandy path on Instagram and Facebook with short evocative captions.

I continued shoot video with my smartphone while walking — a soft compression on the downbeat and a releasing crunch on the rebound. I worked intuitively, intentionally without any specific intention other than to simply notice as much as possible whilst walking along a coastal trail.

The comments on my Facebook post showed me that people are with me; we are walking together, experiencing the coastal path. I notice that my interlocutors are pulling my images into a virtual trail of their own, but theirs is a narrative, a guided tour rather than a sequence of moments in the lifeworld of a coastal path. The seed for a film is sown — a female voice-over, poetic meanderings and double exposures.

Follow the shadow stones,
trace the curves and the camber;
a slight rise in the path
a swift flash of pink
on a fence frantically waving,
somebody’s skirt left behind,
the leaves whisper insistently,
thoughts sail up to the untimely moon. (from Marousia’s blog https://wordpress.com/stats/day/marousia.wordpress.com)

I wrote these words in my blog as a verse in a poem that would become the script for a mobile film called Wayfarer’s Trail that was shown at the Sightlines conference in November 2016.

* * *

The development of camera phones a little over a decade ago has generated new ways of making film and video art. Wayfaring, co-presence and mobility are concepts through which filmmaking can be reimagined. Our ability to easily document our movements through everyday life has shifted how we think about film and photography. This is the background for my creative practice research project.

Wayfarer’s Trail was made as an experiment in the form of a walking meditation engaging with the extreme accessibility of smartphone cameras. My inspiration came from Zen philosophy and non-representational theory (Ingold) rather than from psychogeography (Debord) or the modernist notion of a flaneur (Benjamin). I cast myself as a digital wayfarer (Hjorth and Pink 2014) whose online and physical worlds are entangled.

I worked intuitively, intentionally without any specific intention other than to simply notice my embodied and emplaced experiences whilst walking along a coastal trail. As I walked, I imagined motion and stills, layers and double exposures and posted to social media – Twitter and Facebook – and checked how people reacted to my posts. Some stayed with me as I walked. My photos, videos and poems were pulled into a narrative about the universalities of beach trails even though the specifics were unknowable to my interlocutors.

Wayfarer’s Trail contributes an answer to a question posed in the 2016 Sightlines call for papers and films: “What new forms of screen production are emerging and in what ways is creative practice research engaging with them?” Through my creative practice I unfold evidence showing how mobile media and the extreme accessibility of the means of production moves filmmaking into new forms. Wayfarer’s Trail is significant because it is example of a moving image work that places a theory of movement and a non-representational way of working at the centre of our conceptualisations of media production. This expands the field of screen production and mobile media through creative practice research that experiments with new and emergent forms of filmmaking.

Peer Review 1 (Gerda Cammaer)

Wayfarer’s Trail is a poetic visual meditation on the growing accessibility and use of smartphone cameras and the changes this has brought to existing filmmaking practices. Building on a long tradition of poetic representations of reality in documentary and video art, the video combines “a female voice-over, poetic meanderings and double exposures” (Berry, artist statement) creating a virtual tour along surrealist sea-views that constantly immerse the viewer into the ocean. The path taken is thus neither dry nor dull. The path created is carefully constructed, following directions from “subtle fingerposts marking the way” (Wayfarer’s Trail voice-over at 3:52). Seen the artist’s emphasis on exploring the use of mobile media, for me the term “fingerposts” also refers to the posting of images on Instagram and Facebook while walking the trail and filming, which is mentioned as part of the initial idea for this video (something we all do with our fingers). The artist thus puts into practice what Hjort and Pink called “digital wayfaring” a new modality for creating co-presence and instant communication. Yet, while posting images online when walking the trail may have contributed to the ideas for the video, there are no visual traces of these posts in the final piece. And if some of their captions are used in the poetic voice-over, that is not made explicit either. In other words, there is no co-presence for the viewer of the video, only post-presence. While made in a digital world full of smartphones, the medium this video most reminds me of is of another era: I perceived it as a postcard, a carefully crafted image with a personal note about observations made along the beach trail travelled.

As for most poetic work, the visual narrative of this video is difficult to describe. Most of the images are a combination of two moving shots, sometimes even three. Most are images of the sea combined in ways that challenge conventional notions of perspective and scale, even our notions wet and dry. Early in the film, a trail into the forest is submerged into in image of the sea in such a way that the viewer is invited to wade through the waterscape, along the dry path, deeper into the ocean (this starts at 0:39 and is at its peak with a close up of trees and branches at 1:53). Later in the film, the artist created shifting landscapes with double horizons, blurring where the water ends and the sky begins. Some of these superimpositions include panning shots, adding another layer of complexity to the virtual landscapes created. At times, Rene Magritte’s paintings come to mind, but instead of small gentlemen, pelicans drop from the sky or a small house floats up and down. Some of the last images take on a slightly mythical character, as a breakwater made of large rocks weighs on various wide-angle shots of beaches and wetlands with wading pelicans and a single beach tourist (at 4:00). The third superimposition with this particular image doesn’t last long enough to be properly “lifted” from the large beach image that it is combined with (4:27-4:33). This is a pity, as the two former image combinations are such perfect matches, playing successfully with perspective and scale. It would have been nice to lift the shot earlier and make a clean transition to “the breathing sea,” the latter also being the main sound that accompanies the images and gently pushes the visual narrative forward.

In the middle in the video (at 2:55), the artist makes a cameo appearance as a shadow in another wet-dry-image-combination, submerging herself into the ever-moving sea, “standing right here where the earth kisses the expanding sky” (Wayfarer’s Trail voice-over at 3:15) and filming it. This sequence ends with a path straight into the ocean, a suitable metaphor for the (digital) wayfarer’s trail travelled in this video, pointing straight to its multiple horizons and perspectives. All this aligns well with Ingold’s non-representational theory that inspired the artist to make this piece, capturing life as movement, being perceptive of the world, desiring more than simply squeezing meaning from the world, emphasizing the power of the pre-cognitive instead. The ambiguity created in the video is a result of the use of intuitive filming and editing, a process that suits its purpose as a series of “thoughts wandering over the sea” (Wayfarer’s Trail voice-over 4:14). This method however obscures the artist’s intension to expose how “mobile media and the extreme accessibility of the means of production moves filmmaking into new forms” (Berry, artist statement). Since there are no literal references to mobile media or their language, neither in image or text, it requires a lot of after-viewing interpretation to come to this conclusion. Even the self-portrait of the artist in the video does not clearly expose her using a mobile phone: one could easily think that the shadow image shows her filming with a point-and-shoot camera, which has a similar contour. If the idea of co-presence and mobile media use is important to the artist, that could have been made more explicit, be it in image, text or sound. That said, what the video does evoke is the handiness (pun intended) of smartphones as filming tools when on the go. They are small, easy to carry, easy to film with and to document “our movements through everyday life” (Berry, artist statement). But they share this with point-and-shoot cameras, which do not have that capacity to create co-presence and to connect the physical and online world.

Art “knows” differently, as it engages in the unique, the qualitative, the particular, and the local. The domain of art deals with experience-based knowledge (Henk Slager, “Differential Iconography” In The Routledge Companion to Research in the Arts, 2010:335). In this sense, Wayfarer’s Trail is a successful artwork. Its use of poetry in image and sound, and the ambiguity created by joining together at first sight incompatible images and words, disrupts the viewer’s expectation of meaning. In my view, that is why it is also successful artistic research, as it stands up “against each mode of visual reduction and cultural disciplining in the form of a dynamic mapping of a series of heterogeneous, open-ended rearticulations, thus showing different forms of knowledge production.” (Slager, 2011:333). In this case, the different knowledge production does not necessarily come from the techniques used (poetry and superimpositions) but in the way they are applied. One could as easily write a review of this work in connection with feminist art, performance, or gestalt theory. But in tune with the artist’s own writing I focussed on mobile filmmaking and especially the use of (visual) poetry. It is the poetic nature of the work that inspired me to read more into the word “fingerposts” and give it a new meaning. That is new knowledge, as is what we have learned about the “universalities of beach trails” after seeing and experiencing this video (Berry, artist statement).

Peer Review 2 (Trish Fitzsimons)

I approach this task as one that is an avid and regular bushwalker, with a particular passion for walking beside the Australian ocean/s. And as one who has recently produced several documentaries, gathered together in both a physical and an online exhibition, that explore the aesthetics and the social and environmental history of one of Brisbane’s forgotten places: Norman Creek and its catchment. I was intrigued therefore to see what might be the results of Berry’s initial ‘specific intention … to simply notice as much as possible whilst walking along a coastal trail’. And I note and acknowledge that Berry has multiple publications in the field of forms of media/(im)mediacy made possible by networked smart phones. My own research areas using film as a medium are radically different, typically involving archival and interview and visual research over several years prior to a research output, so it is possible that I was poorly chosen as a peer reviewer for this work. I will therefore read with great interest what the other reviewer had to say. And what Berry may say in response.

I enjoyed viewing this piece and did experience it as a sensitive response to the coastal environment. Whilst the relationship of Marsha Berry to Marousia was not initially clear ­ indeed clicking on the url provided took me to a site where I had to join to view ­ I was later able to ascertain that Marousia is indeed a cyber pseudonym for Marsha. And I therefore understand that Marsha wrote the poetry that is the major element of the film’s soundtrack. See https://marousia.wordpress.com/about/ I enjoyed this poetry and it was probably for me the highlight of the piece. Although the narration tells us that ‘I swapped to silent footfalls’ I found the absence of any walking noises ­ breath, brushing of bushes, footsteps of any kind ­ and the monotonousness of the soundtrack with what would appear to have been a wash of generic ocean sound, an absence.

I can see the value of this work as professional practice and personal expression. I can’t in truth easily see the ‘contribution to knowledge’ in this work that would make it research. Going to the research statement for guidance Berry adduces ‘the extreme accessibility of the means of production moves filmmaking into new forms’. And that Wayfarer’s Trail ‘places a theory of movement and a non representational way of working at the centre of our conceptualization’. From a common or garden perspective it is hard for me to see how this work could possibly be rendered as ‘non representational’. I was not familiar with Ingold’s theory and did some minimal Googling to understand the ways in which Berry (and Ingold) use this term. It’s focus on ’embodied’ experience indeed take me back to how much more I might have wanted from both the soundtrack and the images of ‘Wayfarer’s Trail’ if I was to understand this as a departure from the representational strategies of ‘woman with a smartphone out for a nice walk and to capture representations’ of her experience.

I went then Hjorth and PInk to understand what Berry might mean by ‘Digital Wayfaring’. Again, I was interested in these author’s questioning of ‘how second­generation locative media and emerging contemporary camera phone practices are becoming entangled to create new visualities and socialities of place and place making. (‘http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/2050157913505257). But it was hard for me to find such ‘new visualities and socialities of place and place making’ in Berry’s piece. Berry tells us that she was posting to Twitter and Facebook as she walked and was encouraged by the responses she got. But I could not then see how these interactions had influenced the piece, certainly not in ways that I could recognize as an exciting new form of media. And indeed I was bidden to wonder whether these interactions may have literally and figurative dis­tracted Berry from her task ‘to simply notice as much as possible’.

In summary then, whilst I enjoyed viewing this work, first at Sightlines on a big screen, and then multiple times on my computer screen, it is hard for me to conform it to the definitions of research that I find useful. Perhaps this is a case that takes us to the agenda of the September 23rd conference hosted by the Deans of Design and Creative Arts entitled ‘Beyond Research: Creative Arts in the impact, engagement and innovation agenda’.

I look forward to ongoing discussion on these questions and that Marsha Berry and the SIghtlines team for the opportunity to engage with these questions. Research in the moving image area is broad indeed and between two practitioners such as Berry and myself that would appear to have some commonalities of approach and practice, can arise substantial differences in approach as to whether we are ‘there yet’.

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