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landscape time

For a very different experience of time, not halting in suffocation like siesta time but meditatively flowing in the endless cycle of the seasons, have a look at these landscape films by Dutch artist duo Driessens & Verstappen. Based on time-lapse photography, they created a number of films observing a full year passing in three different Dutch landscapes: Frankendael (2001), Diemerzeedijk (2007) and Kennemerduinen (2010).

Stitched together in almost imperceptibly slow dissolves, the nine minute long films show the gradual changing of the landscape over the course of the four seasons. Their careful compositions make them into moving paintings, whose subtle evolutions of colors, textures and light invite concentrated viewing - turning weeds growing or trees blossoming into dramatic events and the melting of snow into a haiku-like experience of transience.

Frankendael scene G - April

To name two favorites, in 'Frankendael scene G' the composition's depth changes dramatically over the course of the year as vegetation grows into a lush green screen and withers to reveal a receding canal in the background. And in 'Kennemerduinen scene B' the dune landscape colors evolve from almost black and white in winter to bright green, yellow and purple in summer, creating subtle shifts in the balance between foreground, middle ground and background.

Kennemerduinen scene B - April

While offering a non-human perspective, the experience of time these films offer is still very familiar to our media-trained eyes. You could view these as minimalistic films - taking the patient observation of a film like 'Milky Way' to its extreme - but their new media art context created a very different explanation.

Here's what the Netherlands Media Art Institute (now defunct) wrote for a 2006 exibition, in a typical example of the new media daze of the early 2000s:

The systematic automatization and formalization of perception prevents the Frankendael films from becoming a romantic or subjective reflections [sic] on nature, making them studies of the spontaneous course of nature and the emergent and entropic processes that are its foundation. The manifest change is the result of the internal structure of nature, of nature as a meta-creative system. In order to still prevent sliding into neo-romantic or techno-utopian concepts, with the Frankendael films it is crucial to acknowledge that at the same time a conceptual inversion is involved: in interaction with the camera, the software and editing, nature reveals itself as an artificial life-system, or as a universe whose natural qualities can only be exposed by means of artificial means and an artist’s gaze.

I'd say this is sliding into techno-obfuscation.

(Both images show the landscapes in late April.)

siesta time

There's a moment when siesta time runs dry. Even the secret, hidden, minute activity of the insects ceases at that precise instant; the course of nature comes to a halt; creation stumbles on the brink of chaos and women get up, drooling, with the flower of the embroidered pillowcase on their cheeks, suffocated by temperature and rancor; and they think: It's still Wednesday in Macondo. And then they go back to huddling in the corner, splicing sleep to reality, and they come to an agreement, weaving the whispering as if it were an immense flat surface of thread stitched in common by all the women in town.

- Gabriel García Márquez, from 'Leaf Storm' ('La Hojarasca', 1955)

'Leaf Storm' was Márquez' first novella, a Faulknerian study of alternating perspectives and interior monologues during a short interval of time (the whole story taking place during the wake for a dead doctor who used to eat only grass, "Ordinary grass, ma'am. The kind that donkeys eat"). But the scene was already Macondo, the magical village where his later masterpiece 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' and many of his other stories would take place.

Macondo was the fictional version of the town Márquez grew up in, Aracataca, Colombia, and it was popularly identified with Márquez's fiction to such an extent that the real town appeared on official maps as "Aracataca (Macondo)".

Aracataca (Macondo)

The map is a screenshot from a Dutch documentary about Márquez from 1983 ('Terug naar Macondo', in Dutch/Spanish).

technological idolatry

Technological idolatry is the most ingenuous and primitive of the three [higher forms of idolatry]; for its devotees (...) believe that their redemption and liberation depend upon material objects - in this case gadgets. Technological idolatry is the religion whose doctrines are promulgated, explicitly or by implication, in the advertisement pages of our newspapers and magazines - the source, we may add parenthetically, from which millions of men, women and children in the capitalistic countries derive their working philosophy of life. (...) So whole-hearted is the modern faith in technological idols that (despite all the lessons of mechanized warfare) it is impossible to discover in the popular thinking of our time any trace of the ancient and profoundly realistic doctrine of hubris and inevitable nemesis. There is a very general belief that, where gadgets are concerned, we can get something for nothing - can enjoy all the advantages of an elaborate, top-heavy and constantly advancing technology without having to pay for them by any compensating disadvantages.

- Aldous Huxley, from 'The Perennial Philosophy' (1945)

This warning about technology comes from an unlikely source, Huxley's classic work on mysticism, written during WWII, when mechanized warfare was in full destructive swing in many parts of the world, but apparently gadgets (bulky radios? bakelite phones?) were already becoming a source of worry as well.

Huxley's analysis fits remarkably well with Nicholas Carr's discussion of a recent lecture given by Bruno Latour, titled 'On some of the affects of capitalism' (pdf).

As Latour shows, today's belief in capitalism has reached an almost transcendental level of absolutism. It has become "second nature", contrasted with the "first nature" of our messy, finite, earthly existence, and it operates in the rarified priestly realm of spreadsheets and growth percentage points.

...the world of economy, far from representing a sturdy down to earth materialism, a sound appetite for worldly goods and solid matters of fact, is now final and absolute. How mistaken we were; apparently it is the laws of capitalism that Jesus had in mind when he warned his disciples: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away." (Matt 24-35).

Carr, in turn, points out how Latour's vision of absolutist economics applies equally well to technology.

Latour finds, in thinking about our shifting sense of economics, a great irony in the "inversion of what is transitory and what is eternal." The irony becomes even stronger when we consider the similar inversion that has taken place in our view of technology. The glory of technology stems from the possibilities it opens to people in the material world of first nature. The glory hinges on technology's contingency, on the way it yields not only to circumstance but to human desire and planning. When technological progress comes to be seen as a transcendent, implacable force, a force beyond human fashioning, it begins to foreclose opportunities at least as often as it opens them. It starts to hem us in.

Huxley defined three varieties of what he called "higher idolatry": technological, political and moral - distinguished from "lower idolatry" because they managed to achieve "the highest degree of respectability". Today it would seem there are two: economic and technological, both characterized by the mantra of what Adam Curtis called 'The Curse of TINA' (There Is No Alternative) and its corresponding affect, helplessness.

Both Huxley and Latour mention hubris and its retribution, fate or nemesis (literally, 'to give what is due'), and both relate this to the real world, to "first nature". Today these are global, and to most people abstract threats like climate change, while for Huxley it was the (overseas) reality of WWII.

Modern man no longer regards Nature as being in any sense divine and feels perfectly free to behave towards her an overweening conqueror and tyrant. The spoils of recent technological imperialism have been enormous; but meanwhile nemesis has seen to it that we get our kicks as well as halfpence. For example, has the ability to travel in twelve hours from New York to Los Angeles given more pleasure to the human race than the dropping of bombs and fire has given pain? There is no known method of computing the amount of felicity or goodness in the world at large. What is obvious, however, is that the advantages accruing from recent technological advances – or, in Greek phraseology, from recent acts of hubris directed against Nature – are generally accompanied by corresponding disadvantages, that gains in one direction entail losses in other directions, and that we never get something except for something.

in holland...

For more exotic wanderings in Dutch literature, who better to turn to than J. Slauerhoff? The restless poet who never felt at home in his time or place, and whose most famous poem is appropriately titled 'Homeless' ('Woninglooze', 1934), starting with the immortal line:

Only in my poems can I make my home

Never at home in the Netherlands, Slauerhoff travelled the world as a naval doctor, drawn especially to the East and to China. His stories and novels take place in all corners of the globe, including Spain and Portugal, China, the Middle East and Mexico.

And he never seemed to be at home in his time either. He was often labeled a late Romantic, whose classic rhymed poetry seemed outdated in the explosion of modernist styles of the interbellum. At the same time, his cross-cultural interests and intertextual experiments - as in his novel 'The Forbidden Kingdom' (1932), where the identity of a sailor in 20th century Macau fuses with the 16th century poet Camões - made him thoroughly modern. His groundbreaking work to make some of China's classic poets accessible for Dutch readers, much like Ezra Pound did in English, added another layer to his modern oeuvre.

One thing speaks clearly from his work: Slauerhoff didn't like Holland very much. As he once remarked:

...in Holland you need to be careful [when you voice an opinion]. It's a good country, in global trade too, but if you'd depend on it for your inspiration it would be a sad state indeed. I consider Spain and China the most civilized countries of the world. Dutch culture is like rye bread: solid, substantial but lacking grace.

Even more than 'Homeless', which describes the pull he felt of a wandering life, Slauerhoff's poem 'In Holland...' ('In Nederland...', 1936) articulates the desperate push away from his native country.

Here is the poem in full, in the translation by Paul Vincent. (Poetry International has the Dutch and English versions conveniently side by side.)

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