2015, Photographic animation, color, sound, 4'19''
The Deccan Trap is a sci-fi fable that goes back in space and time, with one layer at a time revealed from a cut out collage of stacked images. The piece travels from some of the newest 3D images being produced in India—at post-production studios converting outsourced Hollywood films from 2D to 3D—to some of the oldest—bas-relief carvings in Ellora’s rock cut temples in Maharashtra.
Victoria Brooks: You worked on The Deccan Trap concurrently with Curtains (2014) and Tales of Love and Fear (2015). Each of these artworks deal with the slipperiness of stereoscopic vision and the complex histories of the production of image technologies. However, The Deccan Trap eschews the 3D illusion of anaglyph technique (the offset of identical red and blue images) of the other artworks, instead using photo montage to produce a different sort of doubling. What is your approach to the composite image?
Lucy Raven: The entire work is formed from a thick collage I madeout of cut-outs from photographs and video stills I took throughout India while working on the two pieces you mention, as well as on the illustrated lecture Low Relief. The layers aren’t glued down, and the sequence progresses, or perhaps devolves is a better way to put it, as each topmost layer of the collage is removed. You can see parts of multiple layers at once, so some part of the composite image in each frame remains constant. It’s another sort of persistence—not of vision, but of strata that allows for different compositions to emerge over time. Each new configuration is based on a removal, which is a strategy I tie to the excavation of the rock cut temples of Ellora, where the images in the second part of the piece are located. The temples there—Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain—are excavated, one layer at a time, from solid basalt rock formations, and contain incredibly detailed interior volumes and bas-relief carvings. That area is part of the Deccan Traps, one of the largest volcanic features on earth, formed 66 million years ago, and thought to be responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs.
There’s a small joke here, as the first film to use entirely computer generated creatures, making physical models and puppets obsolete, was Jurassic Park. Some threads from its theme song come into the sound track toward the end.
VB: Each frame of this visual essay traverses time and geography. How would you relate it to a cinema of production?
LR: The piece begins with cut-outs of a post-production studio in Chennai, where technicians are working on a range of outsourced visual effects for Hollywood films, including converting films shot in 2D to stereoscopic 3D. I visited the studio several times to document this section of a global pipeline of moviemaking. On my third visit, the employees were sitting around with nothing to do, having been underbid by a newly formed Thai company. Most of the films I was looking at—giant Hollywood productions—were parceled into tens of parts and worked on piecemeal around the globe by a range of studios—some in cities with very low labor costs, and others in some of the most expensive cities in the world, where local governments offer studios massive subsidies to bring the work there. A single film, even a single scene, might get worked on in multiple locations the world over. Individual frames may have the foreground rotoscoped in Kuala Lumpur, the background generated in Chennai, and compositing done in Los Angeles. The movies that get this treatment may not always be the most compelling as films, but they contain the most collectively viewed images we have. How they’re produced is boggling. One way of looking it, as a friend in the industry put it to me, is a race to the bottom, capital flowing toward the lowest eddies. At the same time, the utterly fractured production of what we later regard as singular images began to seem to me a sort of sci-fi tale in itself. That was the starting point for the piece. It goes into the computer as a site of digital image production, and out the other side, to another space-time dimension that also involves the projection of flat images into space. I think there’s a continuity of desire there, that, while subject to changing material conditions, persists—to see around, or behind a picture.
VB: Your artworks are often described in terms of animation. Can you elaborate on the context of animation in relation to The Deccan Trap?
LR: It’s a variation on a method of photographic animation I’ve worked on over years, editing, or animating, sequences of still images at varying frame rates. Here, however, the photographic illusion of depth is disrupted each time a layer is removed, revealing the image as a collage. I suppose it’s a riff on the technique of cel animation. Transparent celluloid separations were initially developed as a way for animators to save work and time, enabling them to maintain the stationary sections of a cartoon on the bottom layers, and redraw only the parts that changed from frame to frame.
VB: For me, The Deccan Trap crystallizes your approach to mapping, representing, and transforming the infrastructure of image production in order to define cinema as not only describing a place for collective film viewership, but as a term that encompasses the circulation of everyone and everything involved in that making: the trans-geographical history of stereo-images, the sprawling global crews for post-production, the machinery that captures and projects, the miles of wire, cable, and fibre that connect the machines and transmit the images. Describe your approach to representing this labor of image making.
LR: This goes back to the way I composed the work. I was thinking about it almost archaeologically, as if you were to look at a cross section of moving image history, where technological changes are registered on a geologic scale. The current modes of production The Deccan Trap (and Curtains and Tales of Love and Fear) describe are inexorably linked to our contemporary situation, but each of the elements you mention has a complex history and origin. The development of CG, animation, and digital editing techniques of the past two decades has produced a tectonic shift in the distribution of labor in the film industry from production towards the process of post production. This is a moment that is only now coming into focus. This work is not adequately captured in the filmic modes we're used to. A response requires another approach to how images get constructed.
The Deccan Trap, 2015, Photographic animation, color, sound, 4:19 min.Sound by Paul Corley.