By Peter Kuttner
I am piling up evidence of the unfathomable species variety in my one small place on earth, because this needs to be done by someone somewhere…
In January 2009 I Googled ‘video archives’ and got a very mixed list. I then narrowed my selection to ‘biodiversity video archives’ and ‘video archives devoted to biodiversity’. As a result I was inspired to email a number of organizations, including the Smithsonian from whom I received a reply saying that they didn’t respond to unsolicited emails. I received similar short shrift from the European Commission Audiovisual Service. But getting a response via an unsolicited email with the word biodiversity in its heading, from a targeted contact, is a matter of luck. Be that as it may, my video archive seems to be a lone voice in the Weird Wired World. The State Library of Queensland and Australia’s National Film & Sound Archive have nothing else like it in their collections. It may be one of the earliest presentations of the subject of biodiversity on digital video, at least as far as embracing the range of species is concerned. Because it is about one small place on earth, it derives telling impact as an archive and an artwork. Which leads to the question why is the archive apparently such a rare beast? This is something I am at a loss to understand. Along with many others, I regard biodiversity as the indicator of the planet’s health. Biodiversity, the totality of species and their relationships, is at the heart of ecology and ecosystems. To better understand an ecosystem I would go so far as to say we need as complete a video record as possible of the species it contains. Otherwise how would we optimally know what is at stake. The more people are willing to focus on the biodiversity of their ‘one small place on earth’, the more will they value it and the more likely will they be to protect it. All it takes is a video camera and being open to the wonder of the myriad life forms which can be found on such a quest.
The archive is predominantly a visual artwork on digital video.
That the archive is an artwork is crucial to understanding its reality, although given its by now 21.5 hour running time, it is unavoidably not as accessible as I would wish. Fortunately having a beautiful, well-regarded website goes some way towards overcoming this limitation.
The archive is predominantly a visual artwork on digital video, although not necessarily incorporating moving images. When it does, the movement may be extremely subtle, such as a momentary trembling leaf or twitching antennae. I always frame the images as aesthetically as I can. Sound is an important component of the work. The archive uses entirely natural, ambient sound, mostly recorded on the camera’s mike, with some additional recording of birdsong, traffic, running water, wind and rainforest sounds on specialist equipment. My emphasis is on what a subject looks like, no matter what it may be doing. I only use the lens that comes with the camera, a 16x optical zoom with my previous camera and a 20x optical zoom with my current camera. I make copious use of optical zoom. I vary the angle of the shot to suit the subject. Occasionally I indulge my visual playfulness to create an effect, although it may not appear that way to the viewer. My subject matter is such that the content of the artwork is, for me, always compelling. I cannot conceive of it ever disappointing me. What disappoints me is not doing it justice.
My art is non-interventionist and non-interpretive. It requires and lets the subject speak for itself for the mighty reason that the subject is life itself. I do not express nature. I am happy for nature to express itself. I participate in the events I film by my presence and through my feelings about what I am seeing and my aesthetic sense. Thus, until well into the project, I did not doctor sets – so much so that I would not remove a twig, a frond, a blade of grass or a branch if it got in the way of my subject, often to the detriment of the footage, which was really rather stupid. Subsequently I have removed obstacles to obtain a clear shot, but in a minimalist fashion and rarely.
I film the compelling reality of everyday and easily overlooked natural history phenomena.
I experience a recurring delight in filming the kinds of overlooked plants and animals which form the archive’s essential content and in the knowledge that with each frame I shoot, I am piling up the evidence of the unfathomable species variety in my one small place on earth because this needs to be done by someone somewhere, if not by me here. It is staggering to see how many different creatures can appear over a period, on the glass walls of the small Westpac Bank agency in North Tamborine. Besides innumerable and frequently exquisite moths, I have filmed two spectacular species of katydid, a graceful tree frog, an Asian gecko, a shield bug and a praying mantis. My one small place on earth focus is the antithesis of ‘the world is your oyster’ credo of the blue chip natural history documentary which brings remote and frequently large wilderness areas into the lounges of Europe, North America, Japan and Australasia. To be more specific, the chances are that these programmes do touch on a plethora of small places, but because they do not dwell there, the point about one small place on earth cannot be made.
My work is also the antithesis of that of programme-makers who seem addicted to the extraordinary and have infected the audience with their addiction, as if at some unspecified point in the past, viewers have had to endure a surfeit of the ordinary in natural history documentaries and must now be shielded from it at any cost. The wow factor is accepted as a vital marketing component of blue chip documentary series, but it appears to be dependent on filmic or technical whizz-bangery, which, ironically, can leave the viewer with a sense of not having seen anything truly revealing. Addiction is notoriously difficult to overcome. Filmmakers would have to work harder to educate viewers about the compelling reality of everyday and easily overlooked natural history phenomena, such as the remarkable length of a spotted katydid’s antennae compared to that of its body, or a lone ant’s ability to move a load many times longer than it up the trunk of a rainforest tree at night.
And audiences would have to work harder to discover a different kind of wow factor. Although I think viewers may find it very refreshing to see film of the wealth of flora and fauna that exist in their own back yard. The sort of species I film, the particular plants and creatures, are generally not highly regarded by programme and filmmakers. So unless they are part of a story they are simply not filmed. This effectively amounts to a ban on people being able to see them on film or video, which by default is a form of censorship. My story is that I film them because they exist, because they are there. The point is that life on earth is inherently extraordinary, possibly unique in the cosmos and that life on earth is formed by all the species, Homo sapiens included, even though keystone species are more equal than others.
The archive is not all my own work.
When the credits roll at the end of a film or a television programme I marvel that so many people were needed when it takes so few people to produce my published archive. Which is another way of saying that the archive is not all my own work. It depends on the efforts of two very close collaborators, my editors Kit Guyatt, responsible for all but the interviews in the 2005 publication and Steve Guttormsen who took over from Kit and has authored all the DVDs and done the additional sound recording, culminating in the just published Supplements. Hugh Alexander, whom I knew for many years before I started the project, did the aerial filming and helped with some of the production work. Beyond that I have likened the project to some of the multi-media performance events involving established and emerging artists which I produced in late 60s and early 70s London, in that the archive called on my organizational ability, especially in relation to the aerial filming, species identification and scheduling the interviews and access to properties. Then there has been the vital graphic design work of Angela McKinstry on the location maps, DVD slicks and species list. The publication of the archive in late 2005 coincided with the launch of the website combining the publishing flair of its architect Clive Tempest and the design brilliance of his partner Christina Dreesen.
One of my most fruitful, exhilarating and valued pursuits as I extend the archive is night filming in the rainforest with Jaap Vogel who owns and revealingly operates the spot light and Mark Gould who has carried the tripod, save for a period when this was done by Jean Jacques Simenot. In daylight I carry the camera and tripod when I film in the rainforest, but were I to do so at night I would risk damaging my equipment. I seek to film as much night footage as possible to convey the essential reality that biodiversity is a 24 hour a day, seven days a week proposition. It is a notion that I doubt is adequately understood and communicated. The illumination provided by a spotlight is crude but full of vitality, not least because the spotlight is hand held. Its narrow beam makes the creatures seem more alive than in daylight, thanks to the engulfing darkness. Even when the light flares and flickers and it is difficult to get a reliably good image, the footage may be worthwhile because it still shows what I always find utterly amazing about night filming; the creatures we illuminate going about their business in what would otherwise be total or near total darkness. Some of the key people I have mentioned were friends before they participated in the project, but most became friends as a result of our working together. I thank everyone who has worked with me on the archive.
The ultimate value of the archive is that it exists. The uses to which it is put are largely out of my control. What is within my control, given continued good health, are carrying on filming Tamborine Mountain’s flora and fauna and preserving the data for posterity.
Peter Kuttner – November 2009