Film/Art | Musique concrète: Lucy Raven at Dia

By Phil Coldiron

We begin in the air, a weightless gaze toward a mountained horizon. After some seconds, the camera descends, dropping beneath ground level, replacing the sky with a sheer face of pale earth. It settles, establishing a new ground. This movement is typical of Lucy Raven’s frequently drone-based camera throughout Ready Mix, the single-channel video which comprises the core of her presentation at the Dia Art Foundation’s newly renovated Chelsea location. Raven’s direction is rare in using a technology often relegated to establishing shots and information dumps to instead achieve an active, mobile frame composed at each moment with obvious intention, with care for harmonies of line and monochromatic shade, with an awareness of the signifying capacity of its ability to overcome gravity. These concerns are plain as the shot continues, its fixed frame taking in the activity of a frontloader as it digs into this wall of terrain, scoring streaks of deep eigengrau into the wide, ash-coloured expanse.

A cut returns the camera to its initial position, its gaze now rotated 90 degrees downward to view the same scene from above, occupying the vertical perspective famously theorized by Hito Steyerl as fundamental within an age marked by the twinned facts of groundlessness and surveillance, “a perfect metonymy for a more general verticalization of class relations in the context of an intensified class war from above.” Across the next 35 minutes, Raven will shuttle steadily between two dominant modes of composition: this view from above, and extreme close-ups. In both cases, disorientation is achieved through an imbalance of visual information: the ordering horizon remains absent both literally and, in keeping with Steyerl, epistemologically. 

The tractor then delivers its load into an aperture torn through the ground, the entrance to a circuit of machines built grotesquely, sadistically, within the land they exist to transform. We are, as the video’s title betrays, on the site of a concrete production facility, and Ready Mix follows this process with didactic fidelity, station to station. Offering this clarifying point regarding the telos of what we are shown at this early stage is, I must note, entirely artificial: the video is wordless, and presented as a loop without title or credits. I’ll deal with the issue of making sense of what we see, of attaching meaning to it, in greater detail below.

We return to the sky for a sequence of three shots which track from high above along long, slim conveyor belts filled with stones, their unseen wheels introducing a strange, rippling distortion into the image, deepening the sense of flow. These belts lead into and out of stations of unclear mechanical purpose, though Raven uses them as visual punctuation: in the second shot, which moves leftward, the camera pivots toward the frame’s lower-left corner with the elegant severity of a martial waltz to continue following the altered trajectory of the belt as it exits one of these junctures. The opacity of these spaces is short-lived, as the camera moves inside and they’re revealed to be sorting mechanisms, each allowing increasingly small material to pass through. This leads to the video’s only overtly comic moment: an aerial track along a slow-moving belt bearing a lonely, too-large stone to its fate among the rejects. 

The subsequent three dozen shots, the bulk of the video’s runtime, expand on this process of sorting and refinement. Raven continues to oscillate between images taken inside the machines, filling the frame with jostling, tumbling, and streaming stones, and long overhead shots, highlighting the ways in which this industry shapes its landscape beyond the intrusion of its buildings and the activity of excavation. The tracks imprinted in the parched terrain by the repetitive paths of tractors and trucks become a key motif, their curves balancing the straight lines of the machines. Due to the distance between camera and subject, these overhead images take on a languid tone in contrast to the frantic mechanical activity. While the interiors often hum with all-over energy, a perpetual nowness, the long exteriors allow back in the flow of time, made heavy in comparison. An 18-wheeler dump truck emptying its load—an image we see twice—plays out in the time required by gravity to reach completion, becoming a massive hourglass. 

Our immersion in this production environment is deepened by Deantoni Parks’ score, a booming mixture of augmented location sound and synthesized tones emerging from a pair of large speaker towers, one placed on each side of the long, cavernous gallery housing Ready Mix. With its polished stone floor and high-arching wooden ceiling, the renovated Dia has been brought further into line with the post-industrial atmosphere of the foundation’s upstate location, and Raven’s installation faces up to this heritage in both form and content. The relationship between the latter and the era of land art and minimalism Dia has long championed is plain enough. Likewise, the video’s presentation on a curved wooden screen—perhaps five metres high and more than twice as wide, an object at once temporary and sturdy, purpose-built for heavy work—and the choice of a set of aluminum bleachers as the only seating both further extend the sense of industry into the high luxury of the gallery. 

While I hesitate to call anything about this monumental and booming work subtle, the constellation of traits I’ve just described—the manner in which Ready Mix, the video, immerses its viewer into a space of industry even as its installation demands an ironic awareness of its situation within the post-industrial—allows one particularly salient fact to hum beneath its surface. I’m speaking of the absence of any human figure for nearly the entirety of its 45 minutes. We are not shown the operators of the machines, the drivers of the tractors and trucks; it is only when a hand enters the frame holding a hose that wets the cement waiting in a mould that this process is shown at human scale. It remains there for most of its final dozen shots, as we arrive at the huge concrete blocks which are the product of this unseen labour. Raven concludes with their arrangement into groups and rows for storage: a pair of long overhead drone tracks, rhyming the opening conveyor belts, gives way to a pair of shots in which a lone man guides these unwieldy objects into position. We see this first from overhead, as he steers a block borne by forklift into place, and then at a right angle as the final two blocks are delivered, filling the entirety of the frame with a concrete grid. 

But this isn’t quite the end: nearly a fifth of Ready Mix remains unaccounted for. After sitting with the frame of the completed grid long enough for its satisfaction to be taken in, Raven cuts to a nearly nine-minute-long shot of quickly alternating bands of lighter and darker gray, a hypnotic passage whose duration allows it to modulate visually even as it remains rigid in its repetition. This image moves between reading as outright abstraction, a rapidly tracking vertical perspective on shadowed terrain, and what it is in fact revealed to be: a tight close-up on the spinning drum of a ready-mix concrete truck. The drum’s movement finally slows to a stop, and the truck departs. Given the video’s looped nature, this is both its closing and its opening: on each occasion I’ve visited the show, it’s quite effectively cleared the room, preparing the space for a new audience.

As such, despite the fact that the presentation of Ready Mix hews closer to a traditional theatrical setting than is typical of gallery-based work—with the advent of daylight savings, there are now even two hours in which the room is fully dark, where previously the numerous skylights meant the video’s monochrome was softened by substantial daylight—it remains the case that few viewers stay to see the video in its entirety. This would seem to extend even to its critics: one reviewer, for example, found that in comparison to the “narrative arc” of Raven first major work, China Town (2009)—a similarly extraction-focused film which uses thousands of still images to document the movement of copper from its source in Nevada to a refining plant in China—Ready Mix provides only “a looping compendium of surfaces and textures.” While this is inadequate, if not simply false, I nonetheless suspect that such a verdict bears more resemblance to the average viewer’s experience than my own narrativized report, which is itself a fiction built from memory, and which therefore contains its own share of distortions. 

Before turning, as promised, to some matters of meaning, I should correct the most significant of these distortions. My opening claim willfully disregards the fact that Ready Mix is, at the very least, the third thing one encounters when visiting Raven’s eponymous show. In reality, one enters, as is conventional, through the gift shop: having checked in at the gallery’s desk, one turns and walks westward past a sprawl of monographs and catalogues bearing names which inevitably condition one’s response: Smithson, Holt, Serra, Judd, Flavin, and so on. More significantly, Ready Mix is in fact the second of two works comprising Lucy Raven: the first is Casters X-2 + Casters X-3, the second in a series inaugurated half a decade ago at London’s Pilar Corrias Gallery. This piece fills a slightly narrower gallery one must pass through to reach Ready Mix (its soundtrack bleeds through, beckoning), and consists of two pairs of wall-mounted stage lights roving in automated movement, slow and constant. The scale of the circles they throw on the floor and walls drifts between minimal, leaving the space in near darkness, and grand, large enough to encompass multiple people. Though inevitably inflected with undertones of security and surveillance, the mood in the room is lighter: with their woozy playfulness, these circulating lights bring the visual music of Richter and Fischinger into an age of ketamine and immersive art. 

This tension between musical form and social implication conditions, however subtly, the viewer for the video which follows. As we’ve seen, it’s no trouble to experience both Ready Mix and the Casters as harmonic arrangements of “surfaces and textures.” (In the case of the latter, these would be those of the gallery, a kind of diffuse and moody institutional reflexivity, not so far from Louise Lawler’s after-hours photos of Donald Judd’s recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, a body of work presented a block away as one of the final shows at the storied Metro Pictures.) Such a reading is abetted by Parks’ score, which sculpts a range of industrial clangs, crashes, rattles, and booms into a gratifyingly varied rhythmic field: the stones dance to their own sound. This formalist understanding renders the concrete factory an appealing site primarily because of the wide array of material it provides. Whatever the composition requires—a curve or a line, a patch of shadow or illumination, enclosure or expanse—can be found to fit it. As to the shape of this concerto for industry and landscape, it moves from the sparse order of a wide horizon and the blank terrain below it, through a series of increasingly complex compositions across the production process (a sequence heavy in motif and repetition), before finally arriving again at severity, now figured in the crisp, gridded lines of the stacked blocks. 

If the chamber music of the Casters tends toward the knowing coolness dominant in contemporary composition, Ready Mix is a full-blooded piece of American Romanticism. Isn’t its movement from horizon to grid, from the canonical sign of the mythic West to that of the Fordist assembly line, the self-consciously grand music of a country forever desperate to rationalize its actions? There is no art which can match the sublime terror this rationalism has wrought on the world; to engage America aesthetically is to operate by degrees of failure. (I should note that while the opening image of the horizon and landscape is plainly derived from Hollywood’s visual repertoire of the American West, if there is anything in Ready Mix which specifies its locale, I’ve not yet caught it; Dia’s didactic materials confirm the site as Idaho.) Approached from this angle, the video fails elegantly, elegiacally, a worthy match for James Benning’s train films and videos, the Peter Hutton of Boston Fire (1979), or Terrence Malick’s photography of Oklahoman chain stores and gas stations in To the Wonder (2012). But I am more interested in its activity on scales other than the national—some smaller, some larger, some impossible to quantify.

Among the smaller: what to make of Raven’s pointed occlusion of human labour? There is, of course, obvious precedent here in films such as Alain Resnais’ equally musical Le chant du Styrène (1958) or, more relevantly, Hollis Frampton’s Autumnal Equinox (1974) and Winter Solstice (1974). (Several years ago, Raven played the role of Michael Snow in a table read of Frampton’s performance essay, “A Lecture.”) Speaking of the absence of the human figure from his films of the slaughterhouse and steel mill, Frampton happily reported that one worker, shown the footage, responded, “You don’t see us in the film, you see what we see.” Though one can imagine that the concrete men might similarly appreciate Raven’s sensitivity to the visual interest of their work, it seems unlikely that they would use this precise formulation to describe Ready Mix: the scales of its images are resolutely inhuman. Here, we see as machines. 

Now, this is politically sensible. If it was still possible, just barely, in the years Frampton was exploring these industrial spaces to isolate the visual appeal of labour without serving as a stooge for the bosses, it’s difficult to imagine how this could be done today. This demands a risk on Raven’s behalf: if the gaze of Ready Mix is mechanical, it’s also managerial. The overtly provisional nature of its presentation, its purpose-built screen and aluminum bleachers, induces a miserable fantasy in which this same arrangement is trucked to Idaho, placed in situ, and played as a corporate video glorifying the factory’s work. Seen as such, its disciplinary nature rises to the surface, with all the passive aggression typical of modern management. The worker hangs on only at the end of the line, no longer necessary for anything but the most precise tasks; employment in the face of potential automation is a privilege. 

To be clear, Raven is not a reactionary artist, she is simply a serious one. I hate the dimension of Ready Mix I have just described because of what is true and awful in its picture of modern labour; we are far from any liberal pieties of positive representation, and all for the good. This forthright reckoning of the costs of a certain kind of beauty returns us to my earlier claim that Raven faces up to the artistic heritage shepherded across the last half century by Dia. Commissioned by the foundation to inaugurate its renovated galleries, Ready Mix is, quite literally, a corporate video. On the most obvious level, it constellates references to a number of the canonical works of land art. In its focus on the production of concrete objects, it derives directly from Nancy Holt’s documentation of her Sun Tunnels, while the geometric pleasure it takes in viewing their arrangement of its objects from above also welcomes in Robert Smithson’s documentation of his Spiral Jetty. Its sprawling width and monochrome call to mind the enormous documentation favored by Michael Heizer, as does its interest in terrain as a site for mark making, a trait which also draws in James Turrell. This occurs in more subtle ways as well. The alternating bands of the long, spinning drum also recall the raster of analog video; when placed beside the stacked blocks, these two shots condense the whole of 20th-century art history, its passage from the modernist grid to the postmodernist video. This list could go on. 

Overt art-historical reference has become de rigueur as a means of signalling prestige and taste, reducing the complex traditionalism theorized and historicized by Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried into yet another tool for accumulating capital. But while I imagine that the board of Dia feels as though they got their money’s worth in Raven’s video, here too the work demands answers to a number of difficult questions, showing how many of the ideas raised by the generation of heroic land artists remain unresolved. For example, the thudding pun in the name of the Casters—they are cast steel objects which cast light—primes the slightly subtler implication in Ready Mix of the readymade. Though many of the proponents of land art and minimalism were also Duchampians, it’s somewhat more eccentric to draw the two directly together, a move which opens onto a range of questions. Why intervene artistically in a landscape when similar effects could simply be found? How does the meaning of such industrial intervention modulate in an era of dwindling industry? More obliquely, given the recurrence of the word “documentation” in the prior paragraph, does the incomplete experience typical of land art—the fact that orders of magnitude separate the number of people who have seen the Sun Tunnels in person and in photos—bear some formal resemblance to the frequently incomplete experience of gallery-based moving-image work today? In each case, a detail—maybe meaningful, maybe not—is being plucked from a larger field of potential experience. 

These are not new questions: all were asked of the older work at the time it was made. And Raven’s career to this point has consistently turned to this moment of materialism at twilight, the last years before the dissolution of art into ideas could be seen as complete. Her early work 4:3 (2008), for example, renovated the text-scroll model of Richard Serra and Carlota Fay Schoolman’s public broadcast-based Television Delivers People (1973) to address the shift from analog to digital broadcast as yet another instance of the increasing privatization of formerly public space. Shown in the graveyard slot of a public access channel in upstate New York, the video is typical of Raven’s sensibility: the arrival of HDTV occasions considerations of the copper buried beneath our streets, the distortion introduced by shifting aspect-ratio standards, the desolation of freely available spaces for production. This concern with what, for various reasons, cannot be seen has led elsewhere to the margins of cinematic production and exhibition: whether celluloid, as in RP31 (2012), a flicker film built of frames for adjusting focus and colour; or digital, as in Curtains (2014) and The Deccan Trap (2015), which both address the offshore labour that undergirds contemporary modes of CGI-based filmmaking. 

Such a concern with the unseen brings us to what haunts every frame of Ready Mix. We live in a moment of discursive crisis: our attempts at conceptualizing and communicating the unfathomably large and intricate disaster of a world heating by the second have, so far, failed miserably. I remain resolute that the aims of art are not those of politics, and that their confusion only damages both. (There are moments when these aims align so closely as to become indistinguishable; mapping these is one way of understanding what’s been called modernism.) At the same time, I must insist that understanding beauty—how and where we find it, what we expect of it—illuminates unexpected parts of our mind and can, in turn, lead to actions, beliefs, and convictions we had never considered. This is the level on which art and politics meet: as social objects shaped by innumerable forces, including one another. We generally call these forces “history.”

It is, I hope, clear enough by this point that my regard for Ready Mix derives from the rigour of its dense web of analysis and synthesis, the stress it places on any idea of beauty (including its own), with the breaking down and building up of inorganic material from one form to another that figures Raven’s dialectical understanding of her position as an artist in the world. And so I’ll close with one more point for analysis: the industrial production of cement, the basic ingredient in concrete, is among the most egregious sources of carbon emissions today. Is such a fact immanent to Raven’s images? Would this change them? Could Ready Mix have conveyed such information directly without becoming unrecognizable? I don’t have answers in the present, but if we don’t find our way to a future in which such worries no longer obtain, there will be no more questions to ask.