Visual Strategy for the Anthropocene

Filmmaker Sasha Litvintseva on the cinematic exploration of time and space in the age of ecological crisis.

Excerpt from the film “The Stability of The System” by Sasha Litvintseva & Isabel Mallet, 2016.

The hypnotic videos of Sasha Litvintseva propose sensual film narratives with a displaced sense of reality. Sasha was born in the settlement of Polyarnye Zori, located beyond the Polar Circle, not far from Kolsky nuclear power plant. Currently based in London, the artist, researcher, and curator is developing her own cinematic language – “geological filmmaking” – by exploring the time outside of the present moment and the body, as well as cinema’s potential ability to participate in processes of geological formation.

A graduate of the Slade School of Fine Art, she is currently writing her PhD in media and communications at Goldsmiths College, where she is one of the founders of the Screen and Audiovisual Research Unit. Alexander Burenkov spoke with Litvintseva about her new projects, apocalyptic feelings, and the future of environmental activism. 

AB: Сan you please talk more about your current PhD research and how the term “geological filmmaking” emerged in your practice?

SL: In my filmmaking practice explorations of space and time have always been at the forefront: all my works have addressed the idea of place and attempted to play with temporal perception. Specifically, places that provide access to a time outside of the present have always been my main subject matter. In my current work these questions and interests persist but are happening with the current geo-ecological crisis on the horizon.

I am trying to visually disrupt the hierarchies governing relations between subject and object, nature and culture – the dichotomies inherited from modernity that have not served us well. The art history of modernity, contemporary cultural production, and even apocalyptic science fiction have done little to unsettle these dichotomies, and in many cases have entrenched them further. Geological filmmaking is then a visual strategy for the Anthropocene, this proposed new geological epoch in which it becomes necessary to think and feel on geologic scales and time frames, as those are the scales on which humanity is now inflicting physical influence. Тhe project involves observing and reconceptualizing temporality, filmic and otherwise, materiality of technology as implicated in extraction practices, and pictorial representations of land and landscape. And in exploring these strands of temporality, materiality, and visuality, I argue that they have always and already each folded into the other.

Excerpt from the film “The Stability of The System” by Sasha Litvintseva & Isabel Mallet, 2016.

My two recent video works approach these questions from different perspectives. “The Stability of the System,” shot in volcanic Lanzarote, is a collaboration with Isabel Mallet, a friend and sculptor. It resulted in a collation of two very different approaches to image, form, and materiality, which all became the key themes of the film. The film is an encounter with the landscape on its own terms. Subjectivity ends up dissolving into the landscape, into the inorganic, and the question then becomes: What happens to perception and agency with such a dissolution of subjectivity?

“Asbestos,” a collaboration with the filmmaker Graeme Arnfield, deals with the extraction of asbestos from the earth, in contrast to its extraction from the walls. We then ask how the filming that I did in the mining township of Asbestos, Quebec, and the use of found footage, which Graeme gathered online, can both be thought of as forms of extraction: extracting images from forms and from contexts. Through the lens of the mineral asbestos and its industrial history, we examined questions of materiality and immateriality, visibility and invisibility, certainty and uncertainty – all key to current ecological debates.

Excerpt from the film “Asbestos” by Sasha Litvintseva & Graeme Arnfield, 2016.

AB: Do you believe in the transformational potential of filmmaking and video art’s ability to raise the environmental awareness of society? It seemed to be a prerogative of land art and ecological art to envision ways of organic coexistence of humans with nature.

SL: Well land art, and Robert Smithson in particular, is a big inspiration, his writing and his death is one of the subjects of the film “The Stability of the System.” I don't think moving image is necessarily the only or the best medium to achieve this transformation of perception, and I am a fan of a lot of work from sound art to writing to sculpture. But as a filmmaker I feel it's my place to examine what moving image can offer in the way of transformative potential.

Moving image is one of the mediums that can overwhelm the senses, therefore, it feels an appropriate medium with which to create encounters that delve beyond what is perceptually available. It is also a familiar medium, arguably the dominant medium of the past hundred years, so the question is how to subvert this familiarity and build from the ground up to try to find something new in it. And of course it's a technological medium, so every image it produces is bound up in the materiality and politics of resource extraction. So another thing I am examining in my research is the geology of filmmaking in Jussi Parikka's literally material sense of the geology of media, meaning the minerals, metals and chemicals that make up the media hardware.

AB: You aren't a techno luddite and aren't opposed to technology?

SL: Oh no, definitely not. All our life is technologically mediated, both in the 21st century networked sense, and in the emergence-of-humanity as propelled by tools sense. But I'm no techno-positivist either.

Still from the film “Evergreen” by Sasha Litvintseva, 2014.

AB: But you are quite pessimistic about the future of humanity and civilization in general, right?

SL: Being pessimistic doesn't really offer any solutions. I'm more aligned with Donna Haraway’s style of “staying with the trouble” and learning how to both “live and die together better” on a damaged earth, meaning reconfiguring our relations to the earth and all its inhabitants, both organic and inorganic. Things are not going to stay the same, things are going to deteriorate. We're already seeing it with all kinds of heat records happening way earlier than predicted. But this doesn't mean that it is completely out of our hands and we can just relax and watch it burn. As a cultural producer, I feel a responsibility to try to make work that creates speculative terrains on which to make alternatives for the future imaginable, be they positive or negative.

AB: Should artists now have this activist nature? Do you personally participate in any ecological activist movements or believe only in power of art and culture in general?

SL: I think a lot of important work is being done by activists, most notably of course the recent victory of the water protesters at Standing Rock. And I think direct action is, in many ways, more effective and will become more important in the years to come. But as an artist and filmmaker, I feel that the best way to contribute is by using my skills to their best advantage. I don't think all artists are or should have to be activists, but there is a definite rise in politically engaged work by the younger generation of artists, which is very inspiring.

Still from the film “Evergreen” by Sasha Litvintseva, 2014.

AB: In your video “Evergreen,” which was shot in Japan, you depict the narcissistic society obsessed with self-documentation which seems like a self-preservation before the coming apocalypse and humanitarian collapse. I feel that your video practice tries to preserve, in a commemorative way, the contemporary state of civilization before it changes or simply ends.

SL: That makes it sound much more grand than it is. Rather than creating a monument to civilization before its disappearance, “Evergreen,” in particular, satirizes our daily acts of self-documentation, via digital cameras and social media, while co-existent with ecological collapse. This is image-making which is itself implicated in ecologies and geologies through the materials that power digital technologies. So, yes, the film suggests that we are partaking in self-documentation as we sense our own demise, but I don't feel my video practice performs that role. 

The main theme of “Evergreen” is what images, documentation, and observation do to nature, culture and their entanglement. Historically, representations of nature and our planet have had a direct impact on our relationship with and treatment of it, from landscape painting to the blue marble photograph from the Apollo missions that first showed us the whole Earth and played a part in the first environmental movements. In “Evergreen” both nature and culture are presented as spectacle, and nature, in fact, ends up standing in for culture.

Still from the film “Immortality, home and elsewhere” by Sasha Litvintseva, 2014.

AB: What is your relationship with Russia now? Do you follow the local art scene and political situation?

SL: Not as much as I would like. I don't visit very often, so my experience of it is mediated by people with whom I am in touch. I left when I was 15 so my personality is kind of split between growing up both in Russia and the UK, so I'm always keen to retrace my steps and catch up with what's happening in Russia, be it politically, artistically, or otherwise. That's why I'm so interested in showing my work there, having conversations, and seeing how these sorts of ideas are perceived and received there.

AB: Can you speak a little more about your approach to time in filmmaking. In general, cinematography experiments with time, but you have quite a unique view on it.

SL: Time is the key question in all filmmaking. The most enigmatic concept in Gilles Deleuze's film philosophy was the crystal image of time, a geological metaphor. I am proposing instead the idea of solid time. If the spinning crystal revealed time as generating infinite possibilities that open up and fall away in every moment, solid time is one in which past, present, and future coexist.

The temporal side of my project is an attempt to grapple with deep time and the idea of an already-written-future. For example, with nuclear waste storage we now have to think in time spans of 500,000 years, and there have been recent art competitions that mark nuclear waste burial sites. The question being asked there is how to represent danger in a way that will outlast both languages and semiotics. My project is less about representation, and more about how to even begin to imagine these spans of time. With both nuclear waste and the consequences of already emitted CO2, we are dealing with future effects that are predetermined – in that sense the future is already here. Likewise, we are presently feeling the ecological effects of the entire history of industrialization, and, as such, the past has never left.

The past and the future are continuously present: this is the solid time I am aiming to make visible and experienceable through geological filmmaking.