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News and Media

Arts faculty members collaborate on multimedia installation

Nov. 29, 2011

EJ Dickson

Antarctica 14
An image from Pingree's Antarctica series.
Geoff Pingree

The single-channel film version of Blue Desert opens with the camera drifting above rippling water. A bell appears in close-up, its rope swaying in a gentle breeze; the camera floats above snow and ice floes, giving the viewer the sensation of gliding across a frozen pond.  Then, a panoramic shot of the Antarctic wilderness, in all its icy, splendid desolation.


A breathtaking, ethereal view of the Antarctic wilderness, Blue Desert ~Towards Antarctica is a collaboration between Associate Professors of Cinema Studies Geoff Pingree and Rian Brown-Orso, with a score by Peter Swendsen, assistant professor of computer music and digital arts. Now being shown as a multi-channel installation in the Laconia Gallery in Boston, the project immerses the viewer directly in a world that, as the website notes, is “both overwhelming and alien, both deeply felt and unfathomable, both immediate and unreachable.”


The idea for Blue Desert emerged in 2008, after Pingree won the grand prize in National Geographic’s World in Focus competition for an image he took at the Prado Museum in Madrid. The grand prize was a trip for two to Antarctica aboard the National Geographic Explorer. Sensing an opportunity to work on a large-scale project, Pingree asked fellow filmmaker and frequent collaborator Brown-Orso to accompany him on the trip.


On November 4, 2009, Pingree, his father, and Brown-Orso flew to the southern tip of South America, where they boarded the ship bound for Antarctica. While there, Brown-Orso and Pingree spent nearly three weeks recording audio and shooting footage. “On the one hand, it’s the most immediate and sensorily overwhelming place that you’ve ever been,” Pingree says of the experience. “At the same time, it is very foreign and alien and forbidding and hard to grasp. That was the tension we wanted to capture.”


Pingree and Brown-Orso shot footage from the ship and on land with a stationary, high-definition camera, and used various microphones to record audio, including a hydrophone with a 50-foot cord to record underwater. The result is an austere, visually and aurally stunning portrait of a barren, unwelcoming, and unspeakably beautiful land. “It’s impossible to paint a portrait of Antarctica, so ours is an attempt to frame the unframable,” Brown-Orso says.


Upon their return, the two devised a concept for a project that would take two primary forms — a multi-channel video installation and a feature-length, single-channel film. The endeavor drew on both their shared and disparate artistic interests. We collaborate well because we bring different sensibilities and experiences to every project we do together,” says Pingree, who was trained in documentary filmmaking, of Brown-Orso, who comes from an art and experimental film background. “We’re very complementary in how we approach things.”


For the score, the two recruited Assistant Professor of Computer Music and Digital Arts Peter Swendsen, who used both audio from Antarctica and his own recordings to craft his soundscape. Having spent a year as a Fulbright fellow in Norway, Swendsen felt that he was able to relate to Pingree’s and Brown-Orso’s experience of being in a “remote and evocative place.”


“Sonically, the ice, water, birds and wind are similar to Norway,” he says, “so there was something familiar about being in a place like that, that’s exciting and intoxicating, but you still can’t quite grab onto.”


Using a variety of electroacoustic composition techniques, Swendsen reconstructed sound through bits and pieces, reassembling the audio recordings from the Antarctica trip — for instance, the dissonant honks of penguins — to “capture the fragmented alienness” of the film’s world. “One of the appealing things about soundscape composition is that it’s like traveling without leaving the studio,” Swendsen says of the process. “It’s just a matter of finding a balance between representing what’s appearing visually, and composing in order to evoke a feeling for the environment.”


Although Swendsen had never collaborated with the Cinema Studies Program before, Pingree says that his score “adds another layer” to and “really brings together” the installation, which is running through December 4 at the Laconia Gallery. The three-wall exhibition plunges viewers directly into the world of the Antarctic when they enter the space. “The installation is experiential in the sense that it surrounds the viewer on all sides,” Brown-Orso says. “Peter’s soundtrack gives you the sense of anxiety, of detachment. It’s not an experience that’s meant to make the viewer comfortable.”


A version of the installation projected onto a single wall is also running through December 15 at the Emily Davis Gallery at the University of Akron, as part of an exhibition called “Within the Landscape/the Landscape Within.” The single-channel version will be “more about a journey or a narrative that’s designed for the movie screen,” says Brown-Orso, who is also hoping to show Blue Desert at one of the Cleveland-area art museums.


Swendsen also hopes that the project will find a home on campus sometime during the spring semester. Part of the appeal of Blue Desert, he says, is that there is “some degree of flexibility in how it gets installed.” “It will live on for a while in a lot of different forms,” he says.


For Pingree, who plans to exhibit a series of photographs he took in Antarctica sometime within the next year, the experience of the Antarctic voyage will continue manifesting itself through his creative work long after the shows in Akron and Boston close. “It was a tremendous experience, and it really changed me in a lot of ways,” he says. “I’ve been back for two years, and I keep waiting to fully process it. But I don’t think I’ll ever really be able to — though it exists only in my mind and imagination, it never ceases to haunt me.”


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