Arts

Leslie Thornton

A chronicler of the human condition as it’s been warped by technology takes her talents to the zoo.

 

Arts

Leslie Thornton

You’ve been making films for close to half a century, and most people, especially from the film community, are more familiar with projects like Peggy and Fred in Hell, which cycles through dozens of different formal approaches. By comparison, The Binocular series appears more simple and straightforward. Are you continuing to explore themes that have long been a part of your work, in a new way, or are you on a new page entirely?

Has it been that long? Frightening. I still feel like I’m starting out.

There is a strong carry over between a project like Peggy and Fred and the Binocular series, and it has to do with how I use the camera. Even when I was shooting 16mm film, I tended to shoot very long shots, often a whole roll (11 minutes) because things would happen with the children I was recording, or in my mind, or between us, that were serendipitous and could never have been planned so wonderfully, consciously. I had a documentary/ethnographic eye as a cinematographer and devised as little interference from the apparatus as possible. I was interested in everything that might happen, and especially I was interested in the edge of the frame, and my subjects coming and going, off screen, or hovering on the edge. The approach gives a great deal of presence to the subject, and less awareness of the structuring techniques of the filmmaker/director. That is one reason Peggy and Fred as characters seem so fresh and open in their performance. Filming the animals is not so different. Of course it’s easier because there’s not a lot of dynamic psychology involved, as there is in directing, but there is a similar interest in sustained, even obsessive observation, and letting things play out. So again, I use long shots, as long as the situation and the habits of the species will allow. And there’s a similar interest in the frame, what is inside and outside.

One of the most striking distinctions is that there is less editing apparent in your newer pieces.

Yes, there’s a big difference there. Editing Peggy and Fred or my other linear work is complicated and I’m always looking for a way to estrange, yet hold on to a sense of narrative. Every second, every flinch in the face, every word uttered, every sound and gesture, is carefully laid out to give something to the audience and suspend them in a false and unpredictable universe. With the Binoculars, there is a great deal of editing involved, you just don’t see it because it does not appear in the form of cuts. Once I have the shot I want to work with, and this in itself may require a number of attempts over a period of time, the editing takes place in the exact framing I use of the animal, what actually shows up in the circle, and in the 50 to 100 on average variations I try out with digital effects before I settle on one. So the editing is in the digital effects, and you only see the result. It’s not simple process-wise, though the image gives that impression. And that’s what I want. It should look effortless, otherwise you’re looking at the effort, not the image.

Arts

Leslie Thornton

Why did you begin making work with the intention of showing it in a gallery instead of a cinema?

Four years ago I was given a good digital photography camera by a friend. I took pictures for about a year, everyday, but not because I was interested in photography for myself as an art medium. I was interested in seeing how different it was to shoot stills as opposed to moving images. Eventually I thought I needed to focus my attention thematically and I chose as a theme what I called ‘dead nature’. This lead me into Natural History museums, and I made a video entitled (((((  ))))). Up until that point I was still thinking in terms of linear time-based forms, until the day I taped a live parrot to slip into (((((  ))))), as a slight of hand or puncture mark. On impulse I put the parrot image into a binocular matte, threw on some effects and there it was, voila.

I’ve long had an argument with much of media installation art, feeling it was not deeply cognizant of the shaping of time. When I hit upon the Binocular Parrot I realized I was doing something so simple, and that it was too stark to carry the entrapped attention one expects in a theater, but that it was very rich for the ambient environment of a gallery space. Since I started out as a painter, I was delighted to have stumbled upon a way of making images that arrested attention visually, involved figuration across time, had that depth of time, but that were not what I would call linear. For me the distinction between the cinematic/theatrical space and the gallery is between linear viewing and ambient viewing. By ambient I mean one can come and go as one pleases, that’s all. Linearity plays out as figure within a precise timeframe.

I imagine you choose animals for the Binoculars based on what they look like and how they move. Does anything else figure prominently into your criteria? Where they live or anything about their biology?

I am interested in shooting as wide a range of species in as many environments as possible. I suppose there is an aesthetic of exclusion operating, but I’m not so tuned into that. I’m not so keen on foxes or prairie dogs or moles, for instance. Or pets. Foxes are too furtive and nocturnal, thus hard to film in long shots, prairie dogs too cute, and moles, I don’t care for their eyes and noses!

Arts

Leslie Thornton

Do you shoot in the wild? Have you ever hunted?

Yes, I film in the wild, and no, I would never hunt. The thought makes me feel faint. I only kill mosquitoes when I’m being attacked!

How long will you typically shoot an animal that ultimately becomes the subject of a two or three minute video?

In some cases it all happens in a few minutes, in others over the course of a year. For instance, in filming the baboon who lives at the Brooklyn Zoo, I went about ten times. I had to see what the light was like, learn habits of rest and activity, try different lenses, and then get lucky, too. One of the most difficult animals for me to film has been a zebra. I went to a zebra sanctuary north of LA and thought the circumstance would be ideal. But the animals were skittish around people, since they were largely in the wild. I then had an extraordinary opportunity in Moscow, where I met the zookeeper and was able to go into the pen. But all of the people trying to “help” were making the animal nervous, restless. Finally, I recently found the ideal setting in the LA Zoo, where there was great light, the animals were calm, especially when they knew they would be fed soon, which happened to coincide with the “golden hour,” and I got a perfect shot. Still it took three trips there to get the routine down and watch the pattern of behavior. With the LUNA project, where I’m shooting seagulls flocking in front of the Parachute Jump at Coney Island, I went at least twenty times over the course of a year before I got the shot I needed. Again, I had to learn behavior, lighting, and figure out the best tech. And be lucky.

Arts

Leslie Thornton

This series seems to be very much about looking, even on a mechanical or physiological level, with the side-by-side oculi implying eyes. What are viewers looking at or looking for here?

Originally my thought was that the abstract image on the right would pick up on something about the animal on the left that one would usually ignore or not see, such as birds breathing. In the case of the ant colony, I chose to exaggerate the organized hyperactivity of ants tending a nest by making so many slices in the kaleidoscopic image that you mostly see a rapid pulsing, and a massing of body parts. Now my approach is more open, and I’m taking liberties, including just making an image that I think is beautiful. Yet even when it is more truly painterly, you are still looking at an image of an animal, and seeing things, like light reflecting off the water onto a duck’s belly, that you would never take in walking through the park. You’re right, it is a mechanical gaze, but it seems so full of life to me, so intimately ocular, related to the way a binocular as a technical extension of our eyes isolates and frames, makes a small universe filled with revelations.

What are you working on now?

Recently I began a new branch of the Binocular Series subtitled The Animates. These use a similar split format but the subjects are not life forms – rather I’m looking at mechanical or natural phenomenon that include movement. The first of these was filmed at La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. The same focused attention occurs through the pairing of representational and abstract imagery, side by side. I was surprised to find the formal set-up worked with non-living subjects.