Pillars of the Earth

This is a project I made a few weeks ago for my filmmaking studio and haven’t gotten around to writing about. It springs from a set of ideas which I’ve always wanted to explore but never had a good excuse within a project setting t0 explore.

The project was “tableau vivant”, which is a set of videos playing side by side with restrained or fixed perspective, all compositionally and thematically related. The project, embarrassingly enough, was also supposed to be silent, but since I only gave the assignment sheet a cursory read before diving in, I missed this bit of information. So enjoy the music! Fortunately it wasn’t obnoxious, but I still felt pretty stupid in critique sitting through a lot of silent films and thinking “hmm, I think this was supposed to be silent” right as the instructor started playing mine.

The basis of this video is my general fascination with the gears of society, specifically focusing in on the period of early morning as the machinery of a day starts moving again. Essentially, I have been hung up for the longest time over the idea of everything that goes into making society function as a whole that gets completely glossed over.

I worked in a cabinet factory over the summer, putting cabinets into boxes for shipping. There were maybe 30 people employed in the warehouse where I worked, and each person had a variety of functions with various specializations, but the general function of the warehouse was to take in flat packs of unassembled cabinets, store them, and when ordered by a customer, build them and ship them in a hasty fashion. I saw what we did as a sort of cell, where within the cell were various organelles or divisions of the warehouse, and everything had to coordinate and work in its specific fashion to get our product, cabinets, exported out of the cell and into the larger system.

I ate up biology and earth science in high school; if I weren’t studying to be an artist I’d likely be some manner of ecologist, environmental scientist, something to that effect. One thing that I love about science is how similar conceptual frameworks can be applied to a variety of scales: a cell is made up of functional units, and cells are functional units that make up a tissue which make up organs which make up organ systems which make up an organism which make up a population which make up an ecosystem which make up biomes with make up a planet. And the cell can be taken backwards to proteins, to molecules, to atoms, and so on.

And at each of these scales of magnitude there’s a massive performance going on, and it’s so beautiful. When I refer to the machinery of nature or the machinery of a civilization, I refer to this complex web of interactions and interdependencies, and the analogies are so easy to draw I can only view it as a massive set of conceptual machinery penned by whatever you choose to believe pens such a thing. In the body, liquid and solid waste is removed from the body in a system that is just as important as any other system in the body because in its absence all other processes cease to function. On a societal level, the same thing is true. Every order of social function with slowly begin to shut down if the plumbing stopped flowing and the garbage stopped being picked up.

So I look at power lines and telephone lines and I think of equivalent structures of the human body. And just as a biologist can delve endlessly, down to the atomic level, of how energy flows through our body, there is an equivalent structure which carries power and data all over the country, from pieces of coal or uranium or natural gas and through a system which takes thousands of specialized people to operate, from the power plant operators, the people that maintain the infrastructure, to the people that make sure its routed correctly, to the person my roommate calls at Dominion when we get a bill for power we didn’t use. It’s a massive system that turns my laptop on and shows me what I write.

At the factory where I worked, I certainly had a lot of time, or at least free mental space, to think about the nature of what I was doing. There was that cell-like nature, but we were a unit of the “social machinery” that built houses: we made the cabinets. We interacted with other units all over the world: every time we unloaded a container from China I thought about how these cardboard boxes likely hadn’t seen the light of day since being on the other side of the world, and all the machinery that was necessary to transport them from the Chinese factory, to a port, over an ocean, through another port, back over the United States in some distance, then at our loading bay being unloaded and sorted and built and distributed to homes. Incredible (at least it held my attention for a few weeks before I just felt bored and miserable).

So what interests me more specifically? I guess on the one hand it’s the massive faceless scale of everything that happens to keep society ticking. On the other hand, I am so interested in every time there’s human intervention in the system, why, and where.  This video is a totally first blush, sketchlike inquiry into the idea, and I could spend a whole career fleshing out the ideas further and probably still feel like I hadn’t reached the bottom of it. But that’s what I’m rambling with, and I’d love to pick it apart more.

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