Quaking before the unfathomable majesty of thunderstorms, mountains and the boundless ocean, Immanuel Kant described how the formidable experience of the destructive and terrifying power of the sublime natural world exposes our ‘physical helplessness as beings of nature’. Yet, man emerges triumphant in the final moment of sublime transcendence; nature is ‘small’ and inferior compared with the ‘infinity’ of reason and the human mind. In The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990), the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton described the sublime as a ‘phallic swelling arising from our confrontation of danger […] in the pleasurable knowledge that we cannot actually be harmed’. In our contemporary world, humankind has pushed global ecologies to the brink of collapse, provoking environmental catastrophes of our own making. This immense natural power no longer inspires poetic gratification; today, the danger is all too real.
High upon a mountaintop in northern Québec, a desolate vista of rocky outcrops can be seen clustered around a glistening body of water, without a trace of human life in sight. Over the course of Michael Snow’s singular three-hour cinematic epic La Région Centrale (1971), this landscape is surveyed day and night by a restless camera which Snow likened to ‘an eye floating in space’. Rooted to the spot, a mechanical arm swivels and rotates the camera in sweeping gestures, scanning between clusters of stone and wisps of white cloud amidst a blue sky. This disembodied camera-eye makes no attempt to approximate human perception, nor does it convey any romantic subjective response to an experience of nature. Snow simply described the film as an ‘absolute record of a piece of wilderness’, which he portended to be a ‘Goodbye to Earth which I believe we are living through’. There is an invisible catastrophe deep in the seemingly neutral fabric of La Région Centrale – the sublime antithesis, an experience of helpless terror before a natural world that might soon be destroyed.
The screening of La Région Centrale at last month’s London Contemporary Music Festival owed more to what Snow described as the ‘music’ of the film’s visual rhythm than its soundtrack, which consists of an austere chorus of beeps synchronized to the motion of the camera apparatus. Snow’s film was paired with a work that is in many ways its foil, Annea Lockwood’s A Sound Map of the Hudson River (1989), a sound installation of field recordings from the source of the river to the mouth. Echoing the hypnotic difference and repetition of Snow’s film, Lockwood’s portrait of the Hudson captures the everchanging life of its waters, travelling through small rivulets and rapid currents before culminating in the deep swell of the ocean. Yet, like Snow’s automated camera-eye, Lockwood’s installation feels far removed from an unmediated experience of the natural world; booming out over six speakers in Ambika P3’s cavernous subterranean space, the sound of a river reverberating between concrete walls is a reminder that for most urban dwellers, nature is something alien from day-to-day experience.
In Kant’s understanding, it is the otherness of nature that engenders the sublime, in the recognition that man is ultimately autonomous and superior to the wildness of the natural world. Yet, we can no longer accept this absolute separation of man and nature, which would amount to a denial of our dependency on natural resources, and our accountability for the current ecological crisis. In the making of La Région Centrale, Snow felt it was imperative that he didn’t ‘colonize’ or ‘enslave’ this isolated landscape, declaring his ‘horror’ at the prospect of ‘humanizing the entire planet’. Likening the footage of this Canadian landscape to the ‘first rigorous filming of the moon surface’, Snow’s film is a fiction, a fantasy of an undiscovered land untouched by humanity. Even this desolate environment is not isolated from the far-reaching ecological consequences of human life.
By bracketing out humanity in this staged interaction between nature and technology, Snow is guilty of ignoring the political legacy of this remote landscape, which was of course already colonized by the French long before La Région Centrale was filmed. Demands for the ‘decolonization of nature’ have exposed parallels between the colonized subject and the natural world, conceived as similarly passive terrains to be conquered. The Anishinaabe First Nation artist Rebecca Belmore has explored the power and politics of natural materials in the video Fountain (2005), projected onto a cascading screen of water. Filmed on the Vancouver coastline sacred to the Musqueam First Nation, Belmore is shown immersed in the murky waters as she struggles to pull a bucket to the shore, before finally hurling the its contents toward the camera, turning the watery screen a deep red, transmuted into blood. By confronting her audience with this simple dramatic gesture, Belmore violently exposes our culpability for the conquest of land and people. We cannot hold on to the sublime perspective of safety and superiority – our threat to nature is a threat to our own survival.
Main image: Michael Snow, La Région Centrale, 1971, film still. Courtesy: the artist and LUX, London