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A WALK THROUGH WOODA

b y C AT H E R I N E M É TAY E R

A WALK THROUGH WOODA

Chiara Ambrosio is a London-based filmmaker with a fondness for the poetry of the everyday and an enticing artistic vision. This past year, she received the Annual Wooda Arts Award, a six-week residency/pilgrimage at Wooda Farm, two miles from the coast of North Cornwall. She came out of it with 4 short films through which she investigates the traces left from the passing of time, of people, of natural occurrences. Each of them is composed of surrealist visions and ephemeral encounters with nature edited over a lush soundscape created by Bird Radio. ON ENTERING AND THE NAMING OF PLACES | THE SUNKEN ROOM | THE HUT OF ECHOES | THE TANGLED TREE Trained in fine arts and photography, Chiara is also the recipient of a fellowship in visual anthropology at Goldsmiths University, where she will soon premiere her first featuTre length, LA FREQUENZA FANTASMA (The Ghost Frequency), shot near her native village in the South of Italy. Chiara also curates the Light and Shadow Salon in London, a monthly night of celebration of the moving image. I met Chiara recently on a snowy morning over coffee and croissants, at one of her favourite local venues, Cafe OTO in Dalston. The conversation was delightful. 21


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A WALK THROUGH WOODA

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Tell me about your experience at the Wooda Farm. This residency marked a complete shift in my practice. I had just worked 6 months on a big commissioned piece and I wanted time to explore ritual within my work and practice as a narrative device for the work. Rather than coming up with a story and shooting it and imposing formal boundaries, I tried allowing the work to find its own form, which is exactly what happened. The films came out despite my better judgement somehow. I suppose what pushed me towards this is to see how the act of looking elicits something that is already there. You are not imposing anything, just teasing it out through your own set of eyes. You know when you walk in a field and you engage with a particular feeling or layer of emotional sediment, how do you then allow that to show in the work without it being a manipulation, without it being an imposition. I wanted to work with those levels. What did you have in mind before you arriving there?

You had constraints that you had to live with. Yes. Already there was a sense of ritual just from waking up very early and going to bed quite early, which is unusual for me because I am very undisciplined and erratic. But what happened is that having that frame that contained me meant that I didn’t have any concern about what I was going to create. I was half an hour from the sea, so my walk everyday would take me to the beach and back. I would take my camera, my sound recorder and a notebook with me. For a week or so I didn’t even gather anything. I was just allowing myself to explore an encounter. That’s actually what you were looking for. An encounter. Yes. I was looking for a spontaneous engagement with the environment. And naturally, through the repetition of the route everyday I started to structure

I was reading about objects as symbols and objects as what they are, and I am interested in how time affects your experience of something. In my animations, objects become symbols. If there is a clock, it is a symbol of time passing. But working from nature and working from reality I find particularly interesting because I use things for what they are. What I am trying to do is to suggest that with time, you can understand the implications of that encounter. So whether it’s a rock in the land, how it got there, how it was made smooth by its travelling, etc. Or whether it’s a cup, there are particular things about the position of something, how things are laid together or the way they rest or if they’ve been interacted with recently or whether it’s been there for centuries. I believe in what thoughts something very simple can spark. What I am doing in a way is try to play with time to alter your perception of space, like zooming in to a very small detail and allowing time to elapse over the detail. It could affect your own understanding and your own memory of that thing.

It was a journey of exploration. I did feel like an explorer. It was very anthropological, but without people. For me the spaces were people. They had so much history and time was so present in them that all I felt like doing was to scratch and see what was underneath.

How those objects trigger parts of you that rely on different times, memories and experiences...

Is revealing the poetry of nature and the everyday something that you do consistently in your work? And do you have that same approach when you work back here in London? Yes! I think that I discovered what I am really trying to do through all of my work with this project. My experience of the everyday is something that I am very concerned with. But interestingly, I am yet to work on a project that is set in London. Immediately after Wooda, I came back to London and finished my first feature film, which is about a village in the South of Italy. And my approach to the film changed a lot. What I discovered through Wooda is that it is about trying to rest on the small details, on the pieces that make your experience of life particularly memorable. Life itself is quite a mystifying and mystical experience. What I find interesting about your films is how you look so closely to objects or elements of nature that you come to reveal from them something surreal and mesmerizing. What are you trying to communicate through them? 25

Yes, but I suppose I am interested in the practice of actually engaging with the environment. I am a big fan of surrealist literature and surrealism was based on particular enchanted encounters with everyday life. What they were interested in were these ruptures in the fabric of time and space that would alter completely your perception of something. We are engaging a relationship with our environment that is very personal. William Blake used to call them visions. He saw auras walking together with everyday life, with people. I supposed that’s what I am concerned with, not in a mystical way, but in the poetry that is inherent in our existence. In traces and experiences that we leave behind, not as a nostalgic thing but as an actual sediment. When we get up and leave this table with the cups in a particular position, they are almost like stories being written about a particular moment in time that has elapsed. Also I am interested in rituals and I’ve been reading a lot about primitive cosmogony, that’s one of my personal obsessions. I studied ethnography and anthropology in university in Italy. I think that it’s something that stuck with me. I am curious about what people refer to as trivial from the quotidian, gestures you can transpose to another level of meaning. We are all concerned with making meaning in our lives. We

CHIARA AMBROS IO

I tried to go with an empty mind. I went with one rule. I wanted to establish a route and walk it everyday. I wanted the practice to develop from this physical work. So I literally arrived there with the idea of discovering the land and for that to be the origin of the work. There was a very strict discipline anyway because I arrived early February and it was very cold. There was no heating so I had to light my own fire; I had to work according to the times of day.

my experience through how the space was revealing itself to me. I would walk in one specific direction and the earth would change. It would go from hard to very muddy, to crunchy leaves or tall grass. And that started creating the natural steps of my journey. I would cross thresholds that would sort of alter my perception of space. The space itself felt like different rooms and I felt like stepping from a room to another. I actually had a second rule! It was to keep an archive of my experiences. I would take photographs and make sketches. I would go back to the studio and draw and write a lot. I had decided to forget about generating material. I was just gathering things, like a butterfly catcher! I gathered instants and moments, whether it was a photograph or a piece of sound. That’s the beginning of it. And then, I became more conscious of how to translate my ideas into something intelligible. Through gathering this archive, I started write stories and to add my own layer of experience to the place. The first film is called ON NAMING AND ENTERING OF PLACES.


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have our little neuroses, our patterns, our needs, our relationships, and all of these create a story. We are engaged with writing a story in a very basic way. But from this, I think that you can transcend and piece together a story that is a lot more universal. It’s about the experience of life and memory and how we tie ourselves to the past and the future. It is also to make sense of the fact that we live in a very mysterious condition. We don’t know where we come from and where we are going. I am preoccupied, for example, with my history, and I am always thinking of my life as a thread that is sewn between me and god knows where, but I do feel this tension of being connected to things

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It is a beautiful image. To access that state, I always feel that there is an anchor in reality, in material, that you can lift up and try to understand from another perspective. And with Wooda, I did it consciously. For example, in THE SUNKEN ROOM, after my walk, I had these bits of writing. It was like a moment of birth and it was a lot about observing the light changing and the space transform. That was very much structured as a ritual. I was trying to replicate, in a way, an experience of birth and of things coming to life. And that’s why I used animation in a very subtle way just to show what I experienced of standing in a place for 6 hours, which is how a leaf quivers, and as it quivers, the rhythm changes. The whole thing, when you watch documentaries about nature growing in time lapse, it’s so alive. When you are standing in the middle of a space like that, you feel it. I am very curious to hear more about your animation techniques. I am thinking, for example, of the stones that come out of the soil in THE SUNKEN ROOM... THE SUNKEN ROOM was done mainly with stop-motion animation and some footage speeded up at times and reverse shots, like for the candle enlighting for example or pushing a stone in the mud and then reversing it. That in itself was planned. But for the first film, ON NAMING AND ENTERING OF PLACES, featuring bonfires, someone there just lit up a bonfire. I have an obsession with bonfires and I followed my instinct. These films were the most instinctive that I have ever done and in that sense they are also quite exposed. This was a very significant moment in Wooda because they actually burn off a layer of skin that the land sheds. I shot the whole thing and I wasn’t planning on using it, but the structure of the films came retrospectively. Some things were planned, some things were encountered, and then reflected upon.

About bonfires, the first thing that comes to my mind is their smell. But you filmed them so closely and intuitively that you communicated their smell. I am tempted to trace a parallel with this Norwegian olfactory artist, Sissel Tolaas, who works with “sensory memory”. During the Memory Marathon event at the Serpentine gallery this fall, she created a perfume of the tent that we were sitting in that, when passed around, would trigger so many images, even when inside that very room. I feel that you share that talent of rendering senses. And what you did with your films is a bit of that but in reverse, to translate the smell of nature through looking. I am very interested to hear that because I have a very specific way of remembering things. Since I was a child, I remember films through smell. Every film is attached to the smells that were in the room. It is one of the strongest parts of my memory. I remember HOOK from when I was 8 years old and the smell of the cinema. And sounds are really important to me too. I think my filmmaking has been affected a lot by working with sound artists. I’ve always scripted sound before I would think of film, which is very strange. What I am trying to do I suppose is to invert the hierarchy of senses. I am interested in film but not necessarily in the vision dominating narratively. I am interested in accessing through the eyes the whole experience of that moment. And smell is such an ephemeral and subliminal thing. And sound is also that way. I am curious in revealing the things that you’re not even aware you perceive through time. Like with the bonfire, there was a trust with that experience. And with the camera I can do something that cannot be done with pictures, which is to leave the camera to roll and wait. You are creating footage. Yes and then you experience it again. You rediscover things with a little bit of perspective. It is your eye that is looking but at the same time, you are able to understand what is the point of contact between you and that experience. In that line of thought, I often refer to two people. One of them is Charles Simić. He is an American writer of Serbian descent. He’s very much about the capturing of moments. He wrote a book about Joseph Cornell called DIME-STORE ALCHEMY. And another one that had a huge influence in the Wooda project is Yiannis Ritsos. He was a wonderful Greek poet. He wrote 26

a book while he was in exile called MONOCHORDS, in which he wrote one line a day during that period. He was exiled because he was a free poet and therefore enemy of the state. And they are absolutely beautiful moments of being. They are not formal like HAIKU, they are very free and evocative of a particular ephemeral experience but the resonance that they have is so wide. You can understand his experience but it also throws you into a whole journey yourself. And in many ways, A WALK THROUGH WOODA is close to poetry as a form. Would you like to tell me more about people who have strongly influenced you as a filmmaker in any given practice? Ritsos is definitely one of those people. The bravery of his work is incredible. Tarkovsky is also someone I am really inspired by for his sense of time, especially in his memoir film THE MIRROR. It’s the boyhood of the author somehow. In many ways it’s a subliminal film with a very loose narrative structure. It deals a lot with subtle changes in an environment. Some things you are aware of, some things that affect you in a way that will reveal itself later. They are very much about the experience of watching, and about, as a viewer, transcending specific states. He only made seven films and then he died at a young age. He was in exile as well in Italy. He was banished from Russia and could never see his son again. There was always this tension and division between him and his home. This almost mythical idea of home. He also wrote a beautiful book called SCULPTING IN TIME. All of his work has to do with time as a medium to alter your perception. So I think that in so many levels he affected me consciously and unconsciously. I watch his films and about 15 minutes in, I am struggling to stay focused and then a shift occurs and I am absolutely alert and lucid. It’s almost like hypnosis. And then, David Lynch is another huge influence on me in the sense of accessing the subconscious. I’ve been following him since I was very little. I love his attention to sound and the way the most absurd stories are rooted in simple things, such as how the opening of a box can throw you into a completely different universe. All of these thresholds are a way of transitioning from one layer of perception to another. He’s a massive presence. And I suppose another one is Jan Švankmajer, the Czech animator. I lived in Prague for 6 months and that is another experience I think that transformed me


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in many ways. Eastern literature is born out of places like Prague where you experience the city on one level, and when the light changes, it’s transformed and you don’t know your way through it anymore. It’s this idea of space as a mysterious shifting dynamic world. It is because the city itself has had so many transitions historically. Again, I go back to sediment. Prague was the city of Alchemy, so Emperor Rudolph brought all the Alchemists from Europe to live in Prague to explore how to transform black matter into gold. This was a very intense moment of life there. Then you had this huge Jewish presence and all the stories of the golem are born there in a locked room in Prague. Then you had a lot of repression and the idea that all of the artists had to hide underground. There is a real sense of layering and of time settling over so many powerful and traumatic events. And the city itself has its own way of vibrating and reacting to this passing of time. I don’t believe that anything ever disperses. I believe that things accumulate. I think that Prague is one of those places where you can actually see it in the streets. You can see it on the walls that nothing is erased. And that was one of Švankmajer’s biggest influences as an animator. He works with found objects a lot and he always says that he is not manipulating but releasing what is already inherent in the object. I use that as my guiding statement. It’s about trusting your experience. I am blown away by the coherence of your vision as a filmmaker. This was fantastic. Thank you.

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FRAME WORKS: FILM IS IMAGINATION MADE VISIBLE. by CHIARA AMBROSIO

What is committed to the frame cannot be denied; what has been dreamed cannot be taken back, it stands proud against any form of effacement and often communicates covertly, from sense to sense, eluding the intellect and challenging all forms of perception, presenting documents and imaginings as siblings of a same mother.

What is created by the encounter of time and space within the frame is larger than the sum of its parts; it transcends the limits of each of our senses and streams past our consciousness until it reaches the fertile fields of the subconscious, where it sets its roots and begins to grow in mysterious ways; a growth that continues long after the image has faded and the story is forgotten.

The moving image is an orchestra of magnified sounds and whispers, a parade of phantasms and shadows passing before our eyes as real as the wind on our faces; it is a playground for the imagination, where reality is liberated and collides with dreaming frame by frame.

The space where the moving image comes to life and speaks is a temple to the imagination, the charmed world on the other side of the looking glass, where reality is represented in a heightened form, hyper–real and hyper–imagined at once. There, all minute acts of quotidian poetry become an audible language, each motion of the soul a clear gesture that spells out new meaning and a profound reflection on our human condition on this side of the frame.

With the power of vision it treads across time and space, it alters the boundaries that have been erected around us until they are no more and all that is left is an undisturbed, quivering garden, where the stories we share glow pure and white amidst truth, magic and daring, the happy custodians of our most sacred journeys. As a visual artist working within the moving image I stand in defense of this charmed space, I join the ranks of the constant gardeners, of whom there are many and devoted, sifting the weeds from the blooms, shielding the garden from adverse winds, partaking of the heady scent and bright colors of its flowers and the song of the life that it attracts and perpetrates.

Everything that is lost in the vertiginous speed and blind advance of life finds, within the frame, the time and space to linger, to resonate and make itself manifest in all its complexity. Boundaries are challenged and reality yields to the ebullient, clamoring tide of dream. The frame is a space for the quietly subversive and radical thoughts, the whispered acts of intransigence, dictated by the imagination, that exist between words and avoid censorship by the strength of their modesty. The moving image operates according to the only true commodity that exists, time: perpetual time, circular time, eternally returning and thus acquiring presence and an undeniable voice through its persistence. 31

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The moving image is a museum of ephemera, a sacred home for dream incarnate, an archive of impalpable yet strongly sensual matter, out of which feelings, thoughts, and stories are moulded.

Chiara ambrosio - Interview  

Text & Interview by Catherine Métayer for BRUTAL magazine - Environments Issue

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