City Gallery City Gallery Wellington

Catherine Fowler’s Film Programmes Respond to Semiconductor

1 May, 2019

We invited Catherine Fowler to curate two film programmes in response to Semiconductor: The Technological Sublime. Acoustic Geometries screened at May’s Tuatara Open Late. Horizon/tal screens on Sunday 19 May, at 2pm. Here, she introduces the screenings.

Landscape … but Not as We Know It

Semiconductor engage with landscape. But their artworks don’t look, sound, or feel like any landscape you’ll experience either inside or outside the art gallery. We don’t often glimpse desert plains, mountains, wilderness, woods, and forest, lakes and rivers, gardens, enclosures, fields, farms, or villages. There is very little ground to walk upon, no getting lost in the woods, no damp and windy heath, no imagery of sea and sand. Forget the vanishing point. We do not get to look ponderously into the distance from an elevated position, turning scene into scenery. In fact, sometimes we don’t even recognise what we see: there is no picturing, framing, or capturing. Rather, this is landscape on a micro and a macro level: as energetic particles and a rain of white noise, as celestial metaphors and earthly analogies, via video snow and the data cloud. This is landscape as ‘figure of motion’, as well as view. As acoustic geometry and as soundscape. As horizontal and as horizon.

Figure of Motion

First, let’s take the ‘figure of motion’—Len Lye’s phrase.1 Lye and Semiconductor are surely kindred spirits, criss-crossing art and science, endlessly inventive, curious, and playful. Climbing to the first floor of City Gallery, it’s hard not to feel a little sluggish given all of the activity going on inside the rooms. New Zealanders will have to resist the impulse to ‘drop-cover-roll’ when experiencing Earthworks (2016): a massive undulating wave of seismic data. It is easy for us to perceive the multi-coloured strips as analogous to geological layers, laid down across millennia, yet a bit of a leap to realise that in reality such layers are in fact constantly moving. Whether in its aqueous or its radio form, the wave suggests the endless repetition of movement, as well as its constant variation. Standing in front of the long ribbony panels, we may feel disorientated by the animations and visualisations, so full of lively metamorphoses, but also enchanted, if we think of enchantment as ‘a mood of lively and intense engagement with the world’.2

Acoustic Geometries

Enchantment can also issue from the chant as a sonorous repetition. In their earliest collaborations Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt used computers to create animations that they described as ‘sound films’. There was a randomness, a sense of chance and playfulness, in some of this work that was often created during live performances, as real-time processors of audio-visual data created the music and animated imagery. This interest in sound is on show at City Gallery, and it becomes the excuse for the first screening programme. Acoustic Geometries explores ways in which audio-visual relations can ‘send … the body moving; the mind dreaming; the air oscillating’.3 It begins by pairing Semiconductor’s The Sound of Microclimates (2004) with Len Lye’s Particles in Space (1966). In both, light—in the form of blurs of colour or specks of white—becomes animated. Light floats, dances, and pulsates, escaping the frame and creating patterned afterimages or acoustic geometries.

Pattern turns to pulsation with Clint Enns’s Let Me ASMR You (Canada, 2014) and Mirjam Bromundt’s Hold Your Breath (Austria, 2014). In both, we are reminded of how sound waves pass through our bodies, reverberating in cavernous spaces, creating synaesthetic effects or quotation marks around our breath. The pleasing orderly rhythms of the first four films is disrupted by the second video from Semiconductor, A–Z of Noise (1999). Like the lighting of a fuse, we should anticipate an explosive ending. Voiceovers dominate the next two films. In No Stairway (NZ, 2006), Stella Brennan adapts a text by Henri Michaux that tells of claustrophobia and psychosis. Yet the emotion of this drama is twice removed, first by an automated voice and second, by a camera which undulates and circles, ascending vertiginously across patterned wallpaper. Anri Sala’s Làk-kat (which means ‘gibberish’), shot in 2003 in Senegal, features a lesson in which three boys repeat words spoken in Wolof, one of the local languages. It is important to know that all the words the boys repeat have to do with darkness and light, blackness and whiteness, and also that the starting point for Sala came when he learnt that many of the Wolof words for colours had been lost from the language. Finally, in Nikolai Nekh’s Half-Cut (Portugal, 2014), soundtrack becomes a weapon or bargaining tool between public transport workers and their bosses.


Despite the fact that so much of Semiconductor’s work looks into the distance (into space and the atmosphere) and the depths (deep down in the earth), in borrowing scientific visualising tools and ‘found’ data the artists constantly remind us of the limiting effects of human frames. Gravity may keep us earthbound, but we have also created our own imaginative and perceptual limits to anchor us in life. A second screening programme explores some of these limits through the dyad of horizon/horizontal. The horizon is an edge and an ending. When it is in view, we shrink. We are scaled down. The horizontal provides a parallax shift. It limits the endlessness to sky and ground and creates a figure. The filmmakers in this programme are interested in the histories, enduring fascination, and damage done by the limiting effects of human frames. Peter Miller’s Set (US, 2016) questions the clichéd romanticisation of the sun dropping below the horizon, while Alia Syed’s Panopticon Letters: Missive I (UK, 2012) considers the carceral disciplining tool of Bentham’s panopticon. Lines surround and divide in Mohamad Hafeda’s Sewing Borders (Lebanon, 2018) as residents of Beirut attempt to embroider the horizontals of maps, borders, and treaties that have torn apart families. Finally, in Polly Stanton’s The Spectral Field (Australia, 2017) and Rachel Rose’s Everything and More (US, 2015), through mixing soundscape (Stanton) and imagescape (Rose), we find ourselves, paradoxically, both closer to and abstracted from the skin of the world, grazing the line that limits the ground from the sky.

—Catherine Fowler

Catherine Fowler is an Associate Professor in Film and Media at Otago University. Her research interests include women filmmakers, European cinema, and the history of artists’ moving images.

1. See Figures of Motion: Len Lye, Selected Writings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).

2. Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001), 111.

3 Brandon LaBelle, Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life (New York: Continuum Books, 2010), ix.