I was reading about nonhuman photography of the kind discussed by Joanna Zylinska in her book of the same name. And in doing so, thinking about Google Earth, the polarised potentials of CCTV and doorbells that track and alert house owners to the movements of others. At the same point in time I was making an abstract experimental film about giving birth to a baby that it is known will die shortly afterwards. Known, because the sonic waves of ultrasound were heard by a machine, above and beyond any words that I could find. Baby movements of tracked and alerted.
I had never once considered that my life was fundamentally changed by, not just a form of nonhuman photography but by the actual material bonding of me and machine in a conduit of information; of transformation. I’d even written about it, this gel, in an essay called ‘Gunk’, for Entropy, an American journal. Felt it on my stomach countless times without fully considering what this gunk really was.
Slowly I realised that the blue gunk of ultrasound gel was the filter through which I’d experienced life and expected death. That the knowledge advances made by humans had paired me in some strange dance of knowing and unknowing, of dialogue with the nonhuman. I knew then that ultrasound gel would be the filter through which I filmed everything, that it somehow contained everything that exists in the in-between of this experience.
Initially, I thought that I would just figure out a way to film through the viscosity and capture the beauty without damaging my camera lens. Then, because I’m not so great at clearing everything up, I realised that, left to its own devices, the blue of the gel transforms. It groups together in clumps, becomes more cobalt at times, teal or turquoise at others. I became transfixed by what would happen overnight to the gel I painted on Perspex and cardboard.
As I built my set for filming, I would sit and watch how the light landed. I realised that although I’d spray-painted cardboard and plastic in certain ways, the light and the gel were working together to transform it in ways beyond me. My notebooks mainly consisted of one or two words of observation plus Instagram posts that are perhaps best described as attempts to eavesdrop on this process of transformation. Although I observed, I was not passive. I put gel upon gel, started using a brush to paint with it as well as looking through the substance of it. Trying different directions of brushing, layering and wondering.
I spray painted Perspex and cardboard, trying to find the colour combinations and movements of the mind and body that is preparing for birth that is death. The toxic fumes of the spray paint whilst threatening my body somehow also came to be the breath of what I was doing. The sometime random patterns of their landing renewing my vigour, increasing the range of interactions they had with the cardboard, plastic and light. Colour landing on the flowers, weeds and threads I built into the set in much the same way that lichen breathes new life in from around in symbiosis with its host.
I left in the debris from the spaces around me, the strange ash that falls from carboard; dust and footprints scuffed up as I walked and sprayed. Moss from the lane outside where I lay down the materials for painting. Layers of ultrasound gel and metallic paint that began to be something else, mercurial time.
Flowerheads, ferns and weeds that began to decay and transform with entropy. I liked the parallels with the Entropy in which my previous understanding of Gunk had appeared. Since writing those words though, the gunk of ultrasound gel had taken on a whole new meaning and life of its own. The debris embedded in it suggested, indeed became a refutation of definition that I was trying to capture on film. A kind of timeless visual space that never quite ended. The materials were always changing, either of themselves as with the flowers and weeds or as experienced through the shifting layers of gel and light.
Finally, I came to realise that all life now exists somewhere between the human and nonhuman, the digital and the material. Polymers of paint and sonic waves of knowledge that can also in turn animate our responses as we give life to them. I feel that I’m constantly on the cusp of understanding but don’t, falling instead into another space of in between. Watching paint dry and form, colours moving into something else.
Thinking about the nonhuman scans of human life, in utero, at passport control, walking through train stations, led me to pick up a paint brush (see below). It led me me to thinking about how words take on a life of their own in the mind of the reader, and often the writer but do they transform in the way that the touch of human with the nonhuman allows?
All images copyright Clare Archibald 2020 and not to be used or reproduced without prior consent.
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