Building A Desert

Video Remix [April 2014]

My very first attempt at digital remix takes the desert as its subject matter and was inspired by William Vollmann’s quote from his work Imperial:

“We thought the desert was blank and we built it up only to have the desert persist.”

I think my remix exists in the realm of film essay. I use the word “film,” even though it seems that many digital remixes and digital remixers want to avoid the constraints of cinema and cinematic theory, because I think my remix still fundamentally retains many filmic qualities. It does not do away with the attributes of cinema that Peter Greenway so desperately wants to abolish, and this is in part because I’m using footage that I’ve pulled from other films. It’s hard to make something that doesn’t retain an aspect or qualities of film when film is the main media I’m using to construct my remix essay.

I call it an essay because I use archival footage and audio in service of a an argument, and each aspect of the remix—the song lyrics, the voiceover, the found footage, and my own footage—is used as evidence in the way I think Virginia Kuhn means it when she talks about evidence in remix. My project is still fairly linear, much like a written essay, in that the song moves forward, the lyrics are narrative, they’re only interrupted by a coherent linear voiceover narrative, and the visuals aren’t that disrupte(d)/(ive), even though some frames are played in reverse.

I was concerned about creating a remix in which the visuals simply represented/portrayed the song lyrics/audio like a music video, but when I separate the two, the audio and the visual, I feel that each component is making an argument and that each argument bolsters [instead of simply repeats or represents] the other. I hope to transform a song that is about sadness, dissatisfaction with life, and disappearing into a far away place into a commentary on our unending and problematic pursuit to make the desert habitable for humans. And I use footage about this issue from three different documentaries to make an argument that we’re failing to see the way in which the desert continues to persist in spite of our efforts.

None of the materials I use in the remix simply represent themselves, but are carefully altered and relocated in different contexts to make statements that extend the material’s original purpose, that advance the small argument each of these objects was making into a larger, more political and aesthetic argument. This is effectively the purpose of all digital remix, but there are different kinds of remixes, and mine seems to fall under the genre of essay more than anything else. This isn’t to suggest, though, that I think I’m making an easy, straightforward argument with easy, straightforward materials. Even though I’m not breaking all conventions like some proponents of video remix might desire, I think this remix escapes being simply “illustrated text” for the reasons I outlined above. And I feel like I do disrupt the flow of the visuals when I reverse some of the footage that I previously present in its intended progression and when I overlay the same frames in reverse translucently over their forward moving counterpart.

A quick note on aesthetics: after a rough cut feedback session in my Digital Studies seminar, I got rid of all the Cadillac Desert documentary footage because I wanted to maintain aesthetic consistency and I wanted that aesthetic to be the kind of haunting, crisp, beautiful aesthetic found in the opening frames. But I realized that such an attempt ran counter to the argument I was making. We’re trying to manage something unmanageable out here in the deserts of California. We’re trying to tame something that is untamable, trying to build something that is aesthetically and fundamentally different that the landscape that exists here naturally. And for me to try and maintain aesthetic consistency, especially when that aesthetic was clean and clear, ran counter to my intended argument. The desert is messy. It does what it wants. It is disrupted by us, our land use, our careless water consumption, and it disrupts back. Over time, we’ve tried to tame it and over time, like Vollmann explains, it persists. So I wanted footage that was disruptive aesthetically. I wanted images that seemed patched together, desperate, unstable, incohesive. I came to love the glitch in one of the Cadillac Desert sections. I wanted to mix amateur footage with professional footage, old footage with contemporary footage, to further support my claim that this tug of war with the desert spans a large time period, that we’re still fighting a battle with the land that we’ve been fighting since we brought water here and tried to live. That we’re all responsible. Not just the people who make these desert cities, but those of us who contribute to the life and death of those cities simply by occupying them and therefore causing demand for all kinds of resources to increase.

References:
jkoomjian. (2010, April 9). Cadillac Desert – 1. Mulholland’s Dream (1 of 9). Retrieved from youtube.com/watch?v=hkbebOhnCjA

jkoomjian. (2010, April 9). Cadillac Desert – 1. Mulholland’s Dream (2 of 9). Retrieved from youtube.com/watch?v=WxdemRM96mc

jkoomjian. (2010, April 9). Cadillac Desert – 1. Mulholland’s Dream (3 of 9). Retrieved from youtube.com/watch?v=6Fk0ZtmlfkE

JonnyX2. (2012, March 9). Las Vegas and Lake Mead 1972-2010. Retrieved from youtube.com/watch?v=i9NozodqOGE

Manic Excursions. (2011, June 1). The Salton Sea Desert Shores and Bombay Beach. June 2011. Retrieved fromyoutube.com/watch?v=ggy8BEJiy5s

Modest Mouse. (1996). Custom Concern. On This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About [MP3 file]. Olympia, WA: Moon Studios.

ransriggs. (2011, May 12). The Accidental Sea. Retrieved from youtube.com/watch?v=otIU6Py4K_A

Vollmann, W.T. (2009). Imperial. New York, NY: Viking Books.