HD Video, 5.1 sound, 8'09''
Introduced by Annie Godfrey Larmon
Drowned World reflects on the experience of not being able to see the world with depth perception. In the work, two neurologists describe losing and gaining the ability to experience the world in 3D, while their perceptual state is animated by images of optically altered landscapes. Filmed in the high desert of West Texas, the video moves through several carefully managed landscapes of water use and experience: an industrial tomato farm, a water well drilling site, a “natural” spring, a snowstorm, and an artist’s studio.
Wallace Stevens once wrote of a woman who, standing before the ocean, mimicked its sounds repetitively in lilt: She was the single artificer of the world / In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea, / Whatever self it had, became the self / That was her song, for she was the maker. It’s true that water—changeable and unsparing, transparent but refractive—is an apt conductor for meditations on the discontinuity of perception and reality. In Drowned World, Ben Thorp Brown weds footage of various West Texas sites invested in the management of water with seemingly unrelated narratives of altered vision; the dissonance levels to a reflection on the interrelationship of phenomenology and climate change.
Brown’s camera moves through sinewy vines and turgid red tomatoes at a large-scale industrial greenhouse on to a muscular rig at a well drilling site. We see micro views of suspended particles and fringes of light in abstract underwater shots at a modified “natural” spring and then an airy snowfall in an infinitely dark space. In the final scene, the artist Charline von Heyl demonstrates her method of producing the effect of water droplets in her paintings. Though disparate, these are scenarios of control and manipulation, where water is caught in transformation, be it natural or artificial or somewhere in between. The footage, too, has been manipulated. In post-production, Brown tweaked the depth and flatness with compositing meant to mimic the experience of watching a 3D film without glasses. The effect suggests a lack in its viewer, so as to distance us from the pictured content, to remind us of our contingent relationship to it.
Played over these images are two audio accounts by neurologists of experiencing damaged stereoscopic vision: one by Oliver Sacks, who lost vision in one eye due to cancer, and the other by Susan Barry, who, after a lifetime with severe strabismus, underwent corrective therapy to gain a third dimension when she was in her late forties. Both describe the fragmentation and compacting of space that occurs when one’s vision is reduced to two dimensions. They explain the ways in which they compensate, relying on other senses and visual cues; Sacks admits getting accustomed to occlusions. Despite negotiating other methods for navigating the world, “the absence of real depth,” he tells us, “is absolute.”
In Brown’s hands, Sacks’s statement might well be retooled as a critique of our perceptual adaptation to our screen-dominated visual landscape—the flattening of space, the dependence on illusion, the acceptance of occlusion. We have indeed found ways of contouring our physical realities to accommodate the immaterial one in which we choose increasingly to participate. But this optic economy is fragile. Like one who loses stereoscopic vision, one tied to a version of the world purveyed by screens has less connection to the laws of things, the plain sense of things.
Brown reminds us that the body is likewise a technology. Our perception is constantly reorganized by modes of production, warfare, and peripatetic screens, obscured and manipulated by capitalist and political interests. On June 1, the United States president decided to withdraw from the Paris climate accord in the interest of isolationism and profit and against the opinion of scientists, economists, politicians, and his country. Those who argue against the reality of climate change often call it a question of optics; indeed, deniers are those who privilege the short term to the long view. For all the punishment water can bring to us as we degrade our planet—drying up, storming, flooding—ultimately we are the artificers of our world.
Courtesy the artist and Bischoff Projects, Frankfurt am MainProduced with the support of The Chinati Foundation, Marfa