DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt


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.

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