DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt


Fierce Fire


Still from "Inner Heat", video by Fred Hatt with Corinna Brown

If you emerge from a hot tub or shower into the cold night, you may see rivulets of steam rising from your skin.  If the environment is dark and a light source illuminates the steam from behind, you can see it clearly.  A runner on a chilly morning may also generate steam from the body, but it’s usually difficult to see in daylight.

Still from "Inner Heat", video by Fred Hatt with Corinna Brown

My longtime friend and collaborator, Corinna Hiller Brown, a butoh dancer and movement therapist, had the idea of trying to capture this effect on video, combined with trancelike butoh dance.  On a snowy winter night in 2005, in my studio in Brooklyn, we turned off the heat, opened all the windows and doors, and pulled a box fan out of off-season storage, trying to get the room as cold as possible.  Corinna repeatedly got in and out of a hot shower, so when she entered the chilly studio her skin would steam for a couple of minutes – just enough to get a quick take.  Later that same night, I filmed the snowflakes eddying under the street lamps outside.

There was no way to assemble the fragments of dance into a connected choreography, but the slow downward drift of the snow through shifting currents of air worked well as a transitional element, echoing in reverse the movement of the glowing steam curling up from the warm skin.  The first, simple edit of this material was used as a projection element with “My Love Bleeds Fire”, a choreographed piece that Corinna premiered at the Cool New York Dance Festival at White Wave.

Still from "Inner Heat", video by Fred Hatt with Corinna Brown

Seven years later, I’ve finally completed a version of the video that I feel stands alone as a piece of poetic cinema.  For the soundtrack, multi-instrumentalist Gregory Reynolds created a jangly droning sound with swelling bass notes, which I mixed with recordings I’d made of ocean surf and rain.

Still from "Inner Heat", video by Fred Hatt with Corinna Brown

For me, the film is a vision of the warmth of life in the cold world.  I described it thus:  “The body is a slow flame, a campfire in the snow, a star in the vastness of space, a pulsing heart in the ocean.”  Every living being is a kind of fire.  Metabolism is combustion.  Life force is like a flame, cohering as long as it consumes experience, adhering to the body as a candle flame clings to its wick.  The heart and mind of a sentient being give warmth and light into the world.

Still from "Inner Heat", video by Fred Hatt with Corinna Brown

The title, “Inner Heat”, refers to a traditional Tibetan meditation practice called tummo.  A combination of breathing exercises and highly focused visualizations can produce enough heat in the body to survive in the snows of the Himalayas.  This is more than just legendary tantric magic, as Harvard researchers have documented the ability of experienced tummo practitioners to produce striking changes in body heat and other supposedly autonomic bodily functions.

Still from "Inner Heat", video by Fred Hatt with Corinna Brown

I suggest viewing this video as a meditation.  Give yourself over to the waves of slow movement and feel the warmth generating within your own belly and heart, and be a source of light in the darkness.  The video is embedded below (except in the email subscription version of the blog), or click the link to see “Inner Heat” on my Vimeo page.


Cooking from the Pantry

Luminous Interval, 1991, still frame from video by Fred Hatt

Making a work of art that goes beyond the sketch level is like cooking: ingredients are chosen and combined, subjected to the controlled heat of the artist’s craft and sensibility.  You might conceive a recipe and then go about gathering all the elements that will go into it, but most artists, in whatever medium, keep a kind of pantry of ideas, sketches, and fragments that they draw upon to make a dish.

My blogging process works the same way.  My pantry contains my archive of new and old work, sketches and experiments, things I’ve seen, ideas and fragments of writing.  When I feel the need to whip up a blog post, I see what’s in the pantry and try to figure out what I can make from it.  Last week’s post was a kind of stew, a bunch of unrelated morsels that were simmered together in the stock idea of spatial perception.

This week I’m going to look at this art of combining ingredients through “Luminous Interval”, a video piece I made twenty years ago, one of my earliest attempts to make something meaningful out of the random results of unguided experimentation that tend to fill my pantry.  The illustrations are still frames from the video piece, interspersed without particular reference to the adjacent text.

Luminous Interval, 1991, still frame from video by Fred Hatt

In the mid-1980’s I was living in Oklahoma and had a job producing local television commercials to run on cable systems in small city markets around Oklahoma and Texas.  I used to drive to these markets in a production van with industrial U-matic video equipment.  I wasn’t making my own films, but I often experimented with the equipment, filming the highways and motels on my way.  When the gain was turned up on these old tube cameras, for shooting in low-light levels, the results had a weird, hyper-saturated glow.  Other effects arose from filming with condensation on the lens, or from changing various settings while shooting.

Another kind of experimentation I enjoyed was video feedback.  Pointing a camera at its own monitor creates the same kind of endless tunnel effect you get by facing a mirror to another mirror, but with a slight delay, and moving the camera or changing settings produces blooming, morphing forms of colored light.

Luminous Interval, 1991, still frame from video by Fred Hatt

I moved from Oklahoma to New York and got another job that gave me access to video and film gear, working as Operations Manager at Film/Video Arts, a nonprofit media arts center offering equipment, facilities and training at subsidized rates for independent and noncommercial film and video projects.  I borrowed a spring-wound Bolex 16mm camera and shot some film while visiting a waterfall and stream somewhere in the woods in the Catskill mountains with a dancer friend.  Later, I experimented further with this footage on Film/Video Arts’ film-to-tape transfer machine, which allowed film to be run forward and backward, in slow and fast motion, and converted to negative, with tonalities and colors reversed.

Luminous Interval, 1991, still frame from video by Fred Hatt

I found myself with a stack of tapes containing the results of all this aimless playing around.  I loved the imagery, but something more coherent would have to be made from it to make it worth sharing with others.  My starting point was the contrast between the lush eden of the Catskills stream and the alienating, isolated feeling of the highways and motels.  The architecture that grows around the modern highway is functional, generic, and hard.  It aims to keep us moving along, no rooting or flourishing allowed.  In this context, the forest stream images could be seen as memories of the richness of life.

Luminous Interval, 1991, still frame from video by Fred Hatt

I had recently been reading the Bardo Thodol, or Tibetan Book of the Dead, a text that views death as a transitional state, a passage between worlds in which visions of peaceful and wrathful deities test the spiritual state of the soul on its way to finding a new womb of rebirth.  Though I was young and healthy myself, mortality was on my mind.  This was at the height of the AIDS crisis, when so many of the creative of my generation, and so many of my friends, suddenly wasted away in their prime.

The Bardo Thodol gave me a rough structure, inspiring the six numbered “chapters” seen in the video.  The edition of the Bardo Thodol that I had described the “bardo” as a “luminous interval” or transitional state between realms, so “Luminous Interval” became the final title of the piece (some earlier versions were screened under the title “Baptism”).  My idea of this structure was also influenced by the 1963 electronic music composition “Le Voyage”, by Pierre Henry.  “Le Voyage” is also based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and had been a favorite album of mine when I was a kid.  Some fragments of this piece are used in “Luminous Interval”.

Luminous Interval, 1991, still frame from video by Fred Hatt

To sharpen the idea of the journey of rebirth, I borrowed a National Geographic film called “The Incredible Human Machine” from the public library, appropriating some of its amazing medical footage, especially the material showing the fertilization of the ovum and development of the embryo, to layer in with my other material.

Luminous Interval, 1991, still frame from video by Fred Hatt

All the original video material I had to work with was silent.  I felt that having some sound on it would make it easier to find transitions and moments in it, so I simply dubbed entire sides of some of my favorite LPs onto the source footage tapes.  I chose atmospheric pieces that seemed to fit the moods I saw in the footage, but once the sound was laid down I did nothing to move or alter it.  In the edited video, wherever the video is cut the audio is also cut, and wherever there are two pieces of video superimposed, the two sound sources are also mixed.

When I’d finished a rough edit of all this material around the Bardo Thodol structure, it did seem a mystical, psychedelic journey, but I felt it still needed a stronger narrative element.  I found the poem “The Flight of Quetzalcoatl” in Jerome Rothenberg’s “Technicians of the Sacred”, a collection of his poetic renderings of myths, songs and rituals from traditional cultures all over the world.  “The Flight of Quetzalcoatl”, from the Nahuatl Epic, depicts the exile, mortality, and rebirth of the Mesoamerican deity of the dawn, the Feathered Serpent.  This poem seemed to fit my narrative like a glove, so I added excerpts from it as a voiceover.  Like the music excerpts, the poem is fragmented and re-ordered.

Luminous Interval, 1991, still frame from video by Fred Hatt

This is how a finished piece was made out of material that came out of pure play, without any vision of the finished product guiding the creation of the source material.  Much of my work is done this way, not only video work but also drawing and painting.  In my larger drawing works, I often begin by sketching unplanned overlapping figures, only then trying to discover some structure in the resulting chaos.  You can read a description of that drawing process here.

You’ll notice that there’s quite a bit of material in this piece that I’ve appropriated without permission.  When the film was made it was only shown in noncommercial screenings, so it wasn’t an issue, but now it’s going up on the internet.  I think the “fair use” argument, that only fragments of the music and video and text sources are used and that they’ve been made into a substantially new work that does not compete or infringe on the original sources, applies here.  Full credits are seen at the end of the film and can also be found in the info section on the video’s Vimeo page.

The video itself is embedded at the bottom of the post.  I believe subscribers who receive the blog by email won’t get the embedded video, but will need to click to the blog site or to follow this link to the Vimeo site for this video.


Okie Troglodytes

Still from "The Silo", 1988, video by Fred Hatt

In the mid-1980’s I was living in my home town of Enid, Oklahoma, working as a video producer for a local ad agency.  I had access to industrial video gear (a Sony DXC-M3 camera and portable U-matic deck), a romantic identification with stone age cave painters, and some unembarrassable friends, one of whom lived on a farm with an abandoned grain silo.  So naturally we decided to do some cave painting in the silo and make a video about it.

The young guy seen playing saxophone and recorder is my younger brother Frank, previously seen on this blog in another old video, Subway Sax.  Frank is now living in Western Massachusetts, where he still practices improvisational  music and dance.

Frank, still from "The Silo", 1988, video by Fred Hatt

The guy who’s driving the pickup truck at the beginning of the video is our friend John, one of my favorite people from my Enid days.  He was from a well-to-do family who owned local office supply and farm implement businesses.  John was a naturalist and an adventurer in the Victorian tradition, and an out gay man long before it was common in Oklahoma.  He had traveled the world, making a living writing adventure journalism about drug smugglers and the like for Hustler and other men’s magazines.  He’d been living in California with a partner who was the leading expert on the California condor.  After John’s partner died of AIDS, and John knew he was positive himself, he’d returned to Enid.

John, still from "The Silo", 1988, video by Fred Hatt

I got to know John because he was in the local writers’ club with my wife and me.  John was writing a hilarious, sexually graphic and scathingly satirical account of a gay coming of age in Oklahoma.  John lived in a little stone outbuilding on a farm outside town.  His place was a regular natural history museum, with an amazing collection of specimens and artifacts including a giant anaconda skin and a Tibetan ritual cup made from a real human skull.  Sitting on a coffee table was an elegant curved bone that everyone who entered his home felt attracted to pick up and caress.  It was a walrus’s penis bone.

Outside the stone house, John had built a large pen and coop to keep his pet exotic chickens.  I never knew chickens had been bred into as many variations as dogs!  John used to take us on nature walks, where he’d make us wade through waist-deep swamps and crawl through brambles.  He could spot all sorts of things I’d never have noticed, including dry owl vomit containing mouse skulls, ancient bison bones in the banks of creeks, and the nests of packrats and possums.

John was an inspiration to me because coming from a small, conservative city never made him think he couldn’t live large.  He gave me courage.  A year after I shot this video, I was living in New York City, working at the media arts center Film/Video Arts, where I edited the piece.  On one of my first visits back to Enid, I was devastated to see John wasting away in the hospital.  I present this video to the world in tribute to John, because, slightly silly though the video may be, it’s all I have.  And after all, isn’t it kind of fun, and doesn’t it have moments of beauty?

The Silo from Fred Hatt on Vimeo.

Some of the fragments of music in the video are what was playing on our boom box during the event.  I believe the breathy brass is from Jon Hassell’s Earthquake Island, and the polyrhythms are from Rhythm Devils Play River Music, by Mickey Hart, Airto Moreira and Flora Purim, and others.

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