A Systems View of Nature

Experimental Film and Video: an anthology. Chapter 3 P.26 Published 2006

During the 1960s American physicist Edward Lorenz turned his attention to the seem ingly mundane field of weather prediction. Devising a mathematical formula known as the Lorenz Attractor, he mapped the course of chaos itself. The study of complex sys- tems such as the weather has since been seen to have applications in all fields of the life sciences and humanities. Systems theory, a science that looks at process and change in response to input from the environment, sees living systems and social systems in terms of the dynamic relation between the parts and the whole.

Some of the most interesting applications of Systems thought took place in the field of micro biology where a new definition of life found expression in the Santiago theory:

At all levels of life, beginning with the simplest cell, mind and matter, process and structure, are inseparably connected.… the Santiago theory (Humberto Mantura and Francisco Varla) proposes a concept of cogni- tion in which the mind as a separate ‘thinking thing’ is abandoned in favor of a model in which mind is not separate but part of a process, the process of cognition which characterizes the existence of life.… Cogni- tion, as understood in the Santiago Theory, is associated with all levels of life … and … consciousness is a special kind of cognitive process which emerges when cognition reaches a certain level of complexity.… the relationship between mind and brain, therefore, is one between process and structure. In this worldview the phenomenon of consciousness is not separate from nature, as it is in Cartesian scientific thought, but is instead an essential part of all biological processes.

This new understanding of nature focuses on the relationship between the parts and the dynamic processes where the flow of energy gives rise to new forms, placing human beings and human consciousness back within the complex fabric of nature and not on the outside like some disembodied brain looking in. Around the same time that complex systems theory was transforming the sciences, a transformation was also taking place in the arts, where the relatively new field of film and video was beginning to gain ground as radical alternative to the traditional disciplines of painting and sculpture. In North America the focus of experimental filmmaking appeared to be shifting way from the Surrealist and Romantic traditions of the early European avant-garde. In an attempt to categorize the work of filmmakers such as Michael Snow, George Landow, and Paul Sharits, the American film historian P. Adams Sitney formulated the following definition, which would characterize an entirely new direction in the history of film:

The Structural Film insists on its shape, and what content it has is minimal and subsidiary to the outline. Four characteristics of the structural film are its fixed camera position ( fixed from the viewer’s perspective), the ficker effect, loop printing and re-photography off the screen.2

In the UK, where the availability of printing and processing equipment at the London Film-Makers Coop further facilitated this materials based practice, both the single screen and multi-screen Expanded Cinema works of Malcolm Le Grice, Annabel Nicholson and William Raban, heralded an entirely new approach to nearly every aspect of film making, film exhibition and film viewing. In the UK structural filmmakers rejected the expressionistic or transcendental elements, still evident in the films of their American colleagues, in favor of a more politicized model rooted in the Kino Eye Manifesto of the early Soviet filmmakers. Inspired by the political upheavals of the 1920s, the Kino Eye filmmakers had rejected the theatrical illusions of the cinema, condemned the passive consumption of filmic illusion, and called for a materialist practice that would inspire a conscious and critically aware audience.

In 1976 Peter Gidal, following in this tradition, described the Structural Materialist Film in these words:

The structuring aspects and the attempt to decipher the structure and anticipate/re-correct it, to clarify and analyze the production process of the specific image at any specific moment, are the root concern of Structural/Materialist Film.

Although structural filmmakers on both sides of the Atlantic began experimenting at that time with landscape imagery, the landscape in these landscape films was usually of secondary importance. As in mainstream narrative cinema and Renaissance painting, where nature is the backdrop to the human drama, the emphasis was primarily on human activity, in this case the filmmaking process. It seemed to me that in these works the proc- esses of film making and the processes evident in nature were still split along Cartesian lines.

An interest in landscape and in the scientific investigation of complex systems in nature, pushed my practice in a very different direction. What interested me about both structural film and complex systems was the possibility of creating work based on the interconnect- edness of these systems, where landscape was not secondary to filmmaking process or filmmaking process to landscape, but process and structure, as revealed in both, could carry information and communicate ideas. Writing about British experimental films in the summer of 1976, Deke Dusinberre made the following observation about the structural approach to landscape filmmaking:

The significance of [structural] landscape films arises from the fact that they assert the illusionism of cinema through the sensuality of landscape imagery, and simultaneously assert the material nature of the represen- tational process which sustains the illusionism. It is the interdependence of those assertions which makes the films remarkable – the ‘shape’ and ‘content’ interact as a systematic whole.

In my films there is a further significance to this interplay between landscape and film- making technology. As Peter Wollen explained:

The techniques developed by Welsby made it possible for there to be a direct ‘indexical’ registration of natural phenomena on film. Natural processes were no longer simply recorded from the outside, as objective observation; they could be made to participate in the scheme of observation itself.

In all my films and installations, I use the simple structuring capabilities of moving image technologies, such as variable-frame rate, in-camera editing and multiple projection, in combination with natural phenomena such as wind and tides and the rotation of the planet, to produce works in which mind, technology, and nature are not seen as separate things divided along Cartesian lines, but as interconnected parts of one larger dynamic system.

In Seven Days, for example, the shape of the film is the result of the interaction between the filmmaker, the equipment, the rotation of the planet and the weather. The camera is aligned with the sun and pans at the same speed as the earth, recording one frame per second from sunrise to sunset. The in-camera editing is governed by cloud cover, by whether the sun is in or out. The final shape of the film is a consequence of the interaction between the more predictable, mechanistic aspects of technology and the less predictable variables of the natural world.

A similar theme emerges in Park Film, where the overall pacing is determined by the flow of people along a busy park pathway in London. The flow is determined by the commuter clock (morning and evening rush hours) and by the weather (on a stormy day walking home across the park is considerably less attractive than catching a bus). This is not really a film about a park, or a record of the people passing through the park; the camera is not a passive observer, nor is it used as a surveillance device. In Park Film the camera, like the passers-by who trigger its shutter, is an active participant, along with the filmmaker and the weather, in the interaction between a park and the city that surrounds it, and it is this interaction that shapes the film. e overall shape created in Park Film, and also in Seven Days, may be described as an emergent property, a result of the continuous interplay between the cinematic process and the environment.

The use of technology in my practice is inseparably connected to language. Anthropologi- cal research has produced evidence to suggest that tool making and language appeared around the same time in history and that, if so, it is possible that syntax was a product of more complex tool making procedures. When, in my films and installations, I get the wind to crank the camera shutter, use a device to align the camera with the rotation of the earth, or place a video wall on its back, I am dealing not only with tools but also with the language of abstract forms and material processes. ese material elements of the Film’s construction function as syntactic devices that are inseparably connected to the meaning of the work.

Bringing the landscape into a gallery is rather like making a map. The dificulty of rep- resenting the limitless expanse of a landscape in the geometric architectural space of the gallery, is conceptually similar to the difficulty experienced by the cartographer who uses the Mercator projection to translate the curvature of the earth onto the flat surface of a chart. In my installation, the process of translation is not registered in lines of latitude and longitude but in the positioning of projectors, screens, and monitors in the gallery.

In the installations, as with the films, both the material process of representation, and the landscape imagery, is crucial to the reading of the work. The recording process in the installations is usually quite simple, perhaps a single, well positioned, continuous take. 5
Instead of fore-grounding the mechanics and positioning of the camera, the equipment used to present the work in the gallery becomes the focus of attention.

In Shore Line, for example, a line of six noisy 16mm projectors are prominently mounted on white plinths, where, like an opposing army, they face an image of a pristine line of surf breaking on a sandy beach. The prominence of the projectors, the visibility of the film loops strung from the ceiling, the shadows of the viewer cast on the screen, and the noise of the projectors (the only soundtrack), read in connection with the composite image of the beach, together create a model in which technology, human presence, and the repre- sentation of nature are physical participants in the production of meaning.

Changing Light builds on the model of interactivity that I used in Park Film. In this instal- lation motion sensors hooked up to a computer respond to the movement of people in the gallery and this directly affects the surface of a lake, which is projected on a horizontal screen. The DVD recording has eight distinct tracks or ‘chapters’ corresponding to the eight takes of original footage. The ‘chapters’ are programmed to alternate in relation to the movement and presence of participant/viewers in the gallery space. In this installation ‘nature’, as represented by the lake, is not seen to be separate from the technology that re-produces it or the people who observe it. The viewer is invited to participate in a model in which nature and technology are seen to be one and the same thing, inextricably bound together in a playful dance of colour and light.

In my most recent installation/expanded-cinema piece, At Sea, digital technology is used to produce a sort of chart or map, complete with landfalls, lighthouses, channel beacons, and endless expanses of fog and featureless ocean. But there are no fixed points on this map, and any attempt at spatial orientation is made impossible by the relentless shifting of a few ephemeral co-ordinates. My intention was not to create a panorama, a view, or a depiction of homogeneous space, but to create instead a model of mind.

The authors of the Santiago theory propose, “ The world everyone sees … is not the world but a world which we bring forth with others.” In this model of reality, the world, Kant’s ding an sich, the world beyond that which is known by our senses, is not readily avail- able to human perception. It would seem that our perceptions are designed specifically to screen out all but the most essential information and that our only knowledge of that world is derived from the internal representation that is continuously being constructed by the cognitive processes that connect our conceptual map to the territory.

In At Sea, both filmmaker and viewer participate in the creation of a fictional seascape, in the representation of a subject that is too large to be apprehended in its entirety. It is my hope that this ‘bringing forth’ of an unknowable subject, in this case the incomprehensible vastness of the ocean, may be read as a metaphor for the process of cognition.

The installations do not bombard the viewer with frenetic action, rapid jump cuts, or bite loads of information. Like the writers of the Kino Eye Manifesto, I prefer to give the viewer the time and the space to consciously engage with the moving image, with its pro- duction and with its presentation. With this in mind, I endeavor to create installations where the viewers are encouraged to slow down, take back control of their own thoughts and perceptions; forget about the constraints of beginnings, middles and ends, and enter instead, a state of mind in which reverie and contemplation can play a creative role in the process of conscious thought. It is my hope that in such a space it may still be possible to consider our selves and our technologies, not only in relation to the landscape, but also in relation to the larger more inclusive context of Nature.



Capra, Fritjof. The Hidden Connections (New York: Anchor Books, ) pp-.

Gidal, Peter. “ Theory and Definition of Structural/Materialist Film,” Structural Film Anthology

(London: BFI, ) p. .

Dusinberre, Deke. “St. George in the Forest: e English Avant-Garde,” Afterimage (London:

Afterimage Publishing, Summer ) p. .

Wollen, Peter. Chris Welsby: Films/Photographs/Writings (Arts Council of Great Britain, ) p. .

Hewes, Gordon. A History of the Study of Language Origins and the Gestural Primacy Hypothesis.



Capra, Fritjof . e Hidden Connections, Anchor Books NY , p.7