Deborah Stratman: Safe and Sound

O'er the Land

O’er the Land

By Samuel La France

“Fear is static that prevents me from hearing myself.”—Samuel Butler

Since I’ve never lived in an earthquake zone—or a war zone, for that matter—the subtle and persistent tremors of Deborah Stratman’s installation Tactical Uses of a Belief in the Unseen (2), mounted at Toronto’s Mercer Union during the 25th Images Festival, left me somewhat shaken. The disorienting terrain of Stratman’s structure—carpeted plywood angles jutting out and cutting through the otherwise unadorned gallery—was amplified by the work’s sonic applications: the ground, laced with subwoofers, trembled with the low hum of choppers, tanks, and explosions, while the treble of alarms, bugles, and bagpipes cut through the room’s open space. Stratman’s installation vividly rendered the traumatic phenomenological residue of warfare, a lingering tinnitus heard—and, no doubt more importantly, felt—by those who remain after the dust has settled.

A self-described “reactive” artist, the Chicago-based Stratman turned to filmmaking after her adolescent passion for and subsequent studies in the sciences were stymied by her struggles with mathematics—as well as her growing disenchantment with the prospect of pursuing a career whose trajectory often leads one to employment with military contractors. Comprising film, video, installation, and her more difficult-to-classify “public works,” Stratman’s mercurial and wide-ranging oeuvre, which applies her ongoing interests in acoustics, zoology, and astrophysics to a practice that melds documentary and experimental techniques, can be broadly organized around the theme of social and technological progress in the pursuit of knowledge—pursuits both constructive (the expansion of our awareness of the spaces we inhabit) and sinister (the imperialistic imperatives of warfare, surveillance, and social control). Taking this distillationone step further, Stratman’s surveys of natural, urban, and extraterrestrial environments are anchored by a recurring engagement with the physical properties of sound: the ways in which it can leave behind a palpable trace, a physical or psychological imprint that preserves the memory of past traumas and fears, making it an essential (though often sublimated) component of the individual’s relations to governing bodies and systems.

This concept of sound as an overtly physical phenomenon dates back at least as early as Plutarch, who related an anecdote wherein spoken words were frozen in the winter and heard again when thawed out in the spring air—a notion that Rabelais revisited in his 17th-century epic Gargantua & Pantagruel, where the cries and clashes of a past battle are concretized over the Frozen Sea, their clamour released when they are plucked from the air and melted on the deck of Pantagruel’s ship. This fanciful allegory of sounds made visible and left suspended in the (un)natural world is repurposed as an exercise in naked fear in the first video in Stratman’s otherworldly “Paranormal Trilogy,” which bears the Rabelais-citing titleHow Among the Frozen Words (2005). A deceptively simple piece—a single shot and credits that, taken together, last a mere 44 seconds—How Among begins with banks of menacing storm clouds looming over a dark and arid landscape. Suddenly, a lightning bolt cuts through the frame and freezes in space, its impossible immobility releasing the sounds of a woman’s terrified shriek and a babble of distressed human voices—a frightful, pent-up chorus unleashed by the gleaming fork of energy tethering land and sky.

Stratman revisited this motif of preserved sound in Village, silenced (2012), which was produced in the same year as Tactical Uses and complements the installation’s suggestion of the persistence of war in more ways than one. The video is a condensed revision of Humphrey Jennings’ 1943 propaganda short The Silent Village, which re-enacts the Nazi occupation and eventual slaughter of the Czechoslovakian village of Lidice in the Welsh mining town of Cwmgiedd. Isolating a single sequence from the Jennings film—the first arrival of the Nazis in Cwmgiedd, in the form of a black car with a loudhailer blaring political slogans—Stratman proceeds to loop the scene in three variations, applying a different sound treatment to each. In the first, Stratman overdubs an audio clip from a later moment in the Jennings film, where the invaders’ final warning against resistance activities acts as a prelude to the massacre of the town’s boys and men; in the second, Stratman drops Jennings’ soundtrack altogether, substituting a brutal cacophony of gunfire and wailing sirens; in the third, dead silence. Where Jennings’ spatial relocation of the Lidice massacre universalized a past atrocity to caution against a possible future, Stratman universalizes it still further by structuring her film as an unbroken loop, the concluding period of silent, deathly respite merely anticipating the catalyst that will resurrect the sounds of oppression and reset this sequence in an indefinite repetition.

While Village, silenced and Tactical Uses echo the “Zone” of Chris Marker’s Sans soleil (1983) in evacuating the historical specificity of conflict and reducing it to a recurrent pattern, Stratman has not shied away from more politically pointed critique in other works. A necessarily subtle work of sousveillance that assiduously watches the watchers, In Order Not To Be Here (2002) documents gated suburban residences, the mod-cons that service them (drive-thru fast food joints, pharmacies, gas stations), and the security-company control rooms that survey them. Stratman’s incisive essay on middle-American paranoia silently etches the inculcation of a widespread panoptic order, where individuals willingly incarcerate themselves within ineffectual fortresses and subject themselves to constant surveillance in an effort to ward off perceived (but not necessarily substantive) threats; the white picket fence, it seems, will no longer do the trick.

While the acuity of the film’s framing and pacing has drawn comparisons to the landscape films of James Benning (who was one of Stratman’s mentors at Cal Arts), its revelation of the nightmarish qualities of American banality—through its at-times menacing electronic soundtrack and its opening scene of hegemonic omniscience—also recalls Benning’s interrogations of the relationship between violence and the mundane in Landscape Suicide (1987) and, more recently, Stemple Pass (2012). In Order begins with footage gleaned from the Collier County Sheriff’s Department: the arrest of two anonymous suspects as witnessed by an infrared camera mounted on a circling police helicopter, the camera’s operator conveying the location of the suspects to the officers on the ground in a harsh, crackling voiceover. The gaze that captures is here, literally, the gaze that captures—the eye in the sky that both abets the self-imprisonment desired by suburbanites in the name of safety, and facilitates the incarceration of those who (presumably) threaten that safety. In her bookending conclusion, however, Stratman chooses to end on a note of subversive optimism: another airborne infrared camera captures the flight for freedom of another unidentified quarry on the run from Johnny Law, who crosses city streets and open fields, vaults fences and swims across a river before finally dragging himself into a dense forest and eluding his pursuers. Panning furiously to and fro to try to bring the runner back into view, the camera eye becomes awash in night-vision snow. This time, there is no ground support, and no voice to direct the action; even the most unblinking gaze, it seems, has its blind spots.

O’er the Land (2009) continues Stratman’s exploration of sound and surveillance with an episode set at the US Border Patrol station at Isleta, New Mexico, where a patrolman makes his rounds while expounding on the “sign-cutting” (i.e., tracking) techniques his department employs to hunt down those trying to enter the country illegally. His monologue is followed by shots of empty landscapes lined with fences and border markers, the footfalls and panting of a solitary (presumably pursued) runner lain over top. Shortly thereafter, sounds of horror or ecstasy (or perhaps both) resound over images of a rushing river—a fluvial counterpart to the sudden sonic release of How Among the Frozen Words, the voices of fleeing aliens swept along in a literal babbling brook. No less than in Benning, landscapes speak in Stratman’s work, preserving the histories that find no place in the official narratives of nations and peoples.

O’er the Land’s procession of all-American pageantry—Revolutionary War re-enactors firing off muskets and cannons for an audience of bored tweens on a class trip, high-school football games, RV sales pitches, weekend warriors strafing the landscape with automatic weapons fire and flamethrowers—has as its nightmarish centrepiece the harrowing story of USMC Lt. Col. William Rankin, who in 1959 bailed out from his crippled F-8 fighter jet at a height of 47,000 feet and fell directly into an electrical storm. Battered about helplessly by tidal air currents, deafening thunderclaps and pounding hailstones, Rankin finally emerged from the tempest and drifted into a forest with his parachute, a full 40 minutes after his ejection. Related over images of menacing storm clouds, with Kevin Drumm’s droning electronic soundtrack evoking the barely contained terror of a Pendereckian threnody, Rankin’s ordeal becomes an eerie allegory of technological imperialism—and the jingoistic ideology it serves—rendered suddenly, terrifyingly impotent by a far from idyllic nature. If the land preserves the traces of the marginal and the disappeared—a no longer mute monument to the victims of a peculiarly exclusionary conception of freedom—the sky still retains the power to silence their oppressors as it so chooses.

Hacked Circuit

Hacked Circuit

The subtle but powerful strain of opposition that runs throughout much of Stratman’s work emerges once more in her latest video Hacked Circuit, an indirect response to Edward Snowden’s NSA whistleblowing. The video begins on a Burbank street corner, as a slow Steadicam shot rounds a bend toward an open door while a piano tune—one perhaps familiar to film buffs—plays on the soundtrack. Inside the building is a sound studio where engineer Darrin Mann and foley artist Gregg Barnabell are systematically recording sound effects for the last scene of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), in which Gene Hackman’s surveillance expert Harry Caul strips his apartment to the bone in search of the concealed bugs that have been recording his every movement. Perhaps the pinnacle of ’70s American paranoia cinema, Coppola’s film crystallized the concept of the threat whose very intangibility attests to its (omni)presence, whose invisibility renders it invincible; the film ends with a crushed Caul, unable to locate the listening devices which now control his existence, sitting in a corner playing his saxophone.

In Hacked Circuit, however, Stratman aims to subvert Coppola’s fetishization of defeat with a sonic reclamation of individual agency. Barnabell’s attentive and precise replication of the sounds elicited by Caul’s search take on the quality of an incantation: a catalyst that seeks to rewrite Caul’s preordained defeat through an intent and intense audio-visual immediacy, reviving sounds that have been frozen in the source material so as to draw the character out of his impotent stasis. At the same time, this act of solidarity wrests back the audio-visual apparatus from those organs of control that have turned it to the purposes of fear, revealing its possibilities as an instrument of resistance as well as domination. That dynamic, of course, will always remain unstable, and the environments we inhabit will perhaps always capture aural evidence of ourselves that may be used to our disadvantage; as Hacked Circuit’s end credits roll, Stratman inserts audio from Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State (2004), another film starring Hackman as an aging and hyper-paranoid surveillance expert, reminding us that the matrices of control, while permeable, are nevertheless perpetual.

Mapping a trajectory from blind, helpless fear to its potential assuagement through a grassroots reclamation of technologies of control, Stratman’s films and videos are the work of a dissenting patriot who fights fire with fire, employing technologies old and new to reveal the misplacement of our fears and to seek out those interests that attempt to exploit them. The artist has even devised ways to allow her audience, and the public at large, to share in this process of interrogation. In a 2004 project aptly titled FEAR, she distributed business cards through 30 Chicago-area phone booths with a 1-800 number on one side and a message on the other:

the more you desire safety

 the more there is to fear

call now”

Callers were greeted by a recording inviting them to describe their deepest fears—another of Stratman’s efforts to reappropriate recording technology and empower those willing to participate. FEAR concluded after two months with the compilation and broadcast of the responses on Loyala University’s WLUW radio station, but as Stratman well knows, this type of project is one without solutions or ends, and thus the lines remain open. Please call now.

For further reading and information on Deborah Stratman’s films, visit La France Samuel