An Introduction to Video Essays

Monday, July 17, 2017

The three videos in our spring issue are concerned with what gets found and repurposed, with the stories that places might collect unconsciously.

Spring Ulmer’s video essay “Steel Trees” addresses the deep reaches of racial violence by asking, “what happens when land that has been violated is left alone?”  The text of Ulmer’s essay comes to us gradually in closed captions that underscore a lone silhouette wandering the hot grasses around an abandoned steel mill. This video is silent, but it is marked by a rustling texture made by the extreme contrast Ulmer has applied to footage of a windy, monochrome field. As viewers sit with these quiet images, they are also asked to sit, line by line, with the steel built to support the World Trade Center, with the details of a white mob attacking a lone victim. Through this mode of visual flattening, and through descriptions of the ways violent and polluted landscapes often combine, Ulmer presses the physical and spectral scars of gentrified space much closer.

In “Body With No Windows” by Annelyse Gelman, “human faces have been elided,” first found and then lost. Here, the tensions between vocal annunciation and the sharp timing of archival clips showcase Gelman’s practiced hand at working in collage. A woman on camera walking alone becomes a mother holding a child’s hand just as suddenly as “the feeling that your body belongs to you” might go away. Gelman’s opening soundscape signals a kind of dread or apprehension. This tone is quickly disrupted by quotidian footage of sunbathers in crabgrass, yard dogs, and tandem swimmers curated from the Prelinger Archives. In a particular fleeting style that intermedia texts seem to capture best, Gelman asks us to recognize the uncanny that we only witness in the daily lives of others, that particular waiting “to be carried from what you cannot remember to what you cannot forsee.”

In “It Is an Intensely Private Experience,” Danica Depenhart uses her collections of other people’s stuff to argue for the significance of negative and leftover spaces. “I didn’t always think of it as an obsession,” confesses Depenhart. When you buy a doughnut, she insists, “you’re paying for the whole thing. You’re paying for the hole in the thing.” Throughout her stop-motion choreography, a disembodied paper arm reaches from inside a torn dream book and shuffles various pieces of refuse Depenhart has “rescued” from the street and the local beer distributor. In this video, found materials do the heavy lifting of visual argument to demonstrate how repurposed materials might reveal something about the person who finds them.

Each video in this issue considers the missing pieces inherent to any secondhand story. After selecting and then writing about these videos, I realized that while they are stylistically very different, the footage from all three videos was recorded in Pennsylvania. And this seems somehow fitting—this accident of shared place—in a video suite exploring the way fragments reveal the deeper stories a found object, or a space, might contain.

Monday, July 17, 2017