Digital Watch (on James Benning)January 2010
James Benning is as synonymous with observing the evolving American landscape as he is with 16-mm filmmaking, so it makes perfect sense that his first feature-length work in high-definition video would be an investigation of a German territory largely unfamiliar to the artist. In many ways, the construction of Ruhr, 2009, will be familiar to Benning’s followers: For each of seven shots that constitute the two-hour work, Benning’s frame remains fixed, allowing events—often subtle and frequently located at the threshold of wilderness and industry—to unfold before the camera in “real” time, unhurried by the narrative expectations of mainstream cinema.
In fact, for most of his forty-year career, the duration of Benning’s takes has been limited to the just over ten minutes of footage afforded by a four-hundred-foot roll of 16-mm film shot at twenty-four frames a second. (For example, the artist’s extraordinary Ten Skies and 13 Lakes, both 2004, are composed entirely of ten-minute takes.) After a suite of six shots, ranging from eight to eighteen minutes each, Ruhr concludes—spoiler alert—with a stunning, dirgelike image of a coking plant’s belching smokestack that slowly fades to postsunset blackness and lasts exactly one hour.
The difference between digital and celluloid images is not simply the difference between the “purity” or indexicality of photographic grain versus cold, clinical pixels: Ruhr suggests that, for Benning, the true promise of HD lies in its capacity to capture images at durations that push the limits of the viewer’s attention toward an almost-inhuman scale of time—albeit in a physical way that an all-too-human viewer, seated in the theater, will surely register.
Benning has long been among the most patient of artists, and therefore his work increasingly seems at odds with an attention-deficient culture. Yet, his films—and, well, video—reward an equally patient viewer and listener. Sound plays a crucial role in Benning’s work and often provides more information than the visual component. (The artist’s initial digital foray was in assembling the lush sound for casting a glance, 2007, his film of and around Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty.) The third shot of Ruhr frames the woods at the edge of the Düsseldorf airport, and over the course of eighteen minutes five airplanes take off—we hear them before we see them—and zip through the frame; each passing plane is followed several beats later by the surprisingly violent rustling of leaves.
Similar devotion to detail also informs shots of a man sandblasting graffiti or the mechanized fabrication of steel cylinders—both pointing to the Ruhr Valley’s industrialization. In another shot, Benning’s camera is positioned behind the congregation in a Muslim ceremony, at the sight line of a man kneeling in prayer, and much of the image is occluded—and then revealed—by the repetitive mass supplication. Throughout Ruhr, Benning eschews beginnings and endings in favor of ongoing processes and cycles, whether natural, industrial, or religious.
Not long ago, I found myself seated a few rows away from the filmmaker at a screening of early films organized by cinema historian Tom Gunning. Following a screening of D. W. Griffith’s The Country Doctor, 1909—a pioneering example of parallel editing—Benning wryly noted that Griffith’s construction of cinematic (story) time, and a related set of narrative expectations, was “insidious.” I laughed but understood what he meant: Only a few years after cinema’s invention, many of its lasting codes had already been established, and old-fashioned storytelling became cinema’s dominant mode. Benning, as Ruhr and other works imply, wants to explore other possibilities that were always available to cinema but generally neglected—namely its ability to record what the camera observes, over time, without much intervention. Or, simply put, he wants his viewers to “feel” time rather than forget about it, while looking at and listening to the world around them. In the obsolescence of the celluloid medium, it remains to be seen whether digital technology offers a truly new way of seeing the world or just a more spectacular version of familiar movie “magic”—James Cameron’s Avatar seems to urgently push this question to the foreground—but somehow it’s not surprising to find Benning on the frontier.