ArtsATL > Art+Design > Hudgens Prize finalists: For experimental filmmaker Robbie Land, what’s old is new again

Hudgens Prize finalists: For experimental filmmaker Robbie Land, what’s old is new again

Robbie Land in performance, "Sonic Rewind".
Robbie Land in a performance of "Sonic Rewind."
Robbie Land in a performance of “Sonic Rewind.”

This is the third in a series of profiles of the four Georgia artists who are finalists for the Hudgens Prize: a $50,000 cash award and a solo exhibition at the Jacqueline Casey Hudgens Center for the Arts. A jury will select the winner on the basis of studio visits and a joint exhibition at the Hudgens Center beginning June 8.  The stories are running on successive days, May 31 through June 3.

Walking into experimental filmmaker Robbie Land’s cramped studio, just south of Cabbagetown, is like stepping back in time. Analog film editing equipment, reel-to-reel projectors and stacks of Super 8 and 16mm film cans fill the two-room space.

But Land, 38, doesn’t think of himself as a retro-style artist. He uses digital and video as well, though even in those formats he returns to old-school filmmaking processes.

Born in Jacksonville, Land received an MFA in 2006 from Virginia Commonwealth University. He’s been an Atlanta resident for 10 years, arriving here after working as a multimedia producer at the Florida Lightning Research Laboratory, where he learned video editing and production. But he ultimately prefers the texture and hands-on manipulability of film.

He pushes boundaries. His work is more often seen in experimental film festivals, such as the Kunst Film Biennale in Cologne and the International Experimental Cinema Exposition in Denver, than in visual arts venues. True to the genre of experimental cinema, his films are first about the medium itself — how it’s made and how it works. Things like skipping, scratches and graininess are encouraged.

Narrative is minimal. His subjects range from Florida theme parks to nature, though many of the images are so altered as to be unidentifiable. He sees many of his films as personal documentaries in the sense that he’ll use rephotographed family snapshots — as in his film “Old Florida” — and, more abstractly, will try to capture the essential qualities of places that are meaningful to him.

Land shoots all his own film and saves it, sometimes for years, as he mulls over how best to use it. He describes some of his projects as “finished but in progress.” He has been compiling footage for “Matters of Bioluminescence” for several years. Featuring glowing fireflies, foxfire mushrooms and aquatic organisms known as dinoflagellates, it’s a good example of how he experiments with unusual processes.

After filming each organism in its natural environment, he also created sequences by placing them on the film stock directly, not mediated through a camera lens, and letting them expose the film naturally, like a self-illuminating photogram. For instance, Land put the fireflies into a jar with raw film stock and left it in a dark room overnight.

The processed film shows the looping traces of the fireflies’ movements. “Bioluminesence” intersperses time-lapse footage of the organisms with segments of the film they exposed. The results are flickering, dynamic abstractions.

Typical of Land’s tedious, labor-intensive methods is his “re-animation” of video onto film. He first downloads the video onto his computer (yes, there is one buried in his studio) and then uses Photoshop to isolate each frame, creates a proof sheet with images the size of a film frame, prints that onto acetate sheets, cuts out each frame and tapes it onto film stock. In the projection, the video’s dot matrix is visible, reminiscent of Ben-Day dots in printed photos.

A 2006 piece is a “documentary” about Betty’s Creek in North Georgia. Land collected soil and leaves and applied them directly to film stock, which he ran through a projector. It’s as if he’s trying to get past the obvious to reveal the essence of a place, as does Spencer Finch, who re-creates the light, wind or color of specific sites. Finch’s piece “The Cave of Making,” for example, on the wall of Table 1280 at the Woodruff Arts Center, emulates the dawn light at the entrance to the caves of Lascaux in France. 

IMG_2839In a Photoshop-happy era, the physicality of Land’s work is refreshing. The handmade quality feels personal. It can be hard to discern what’s flickering past as the film jumps from one sequence to the next. He intends for viewers to be able to recognize some things, even if they don’t know, as he does, how every scratch, flash and blip was made.

Land also does performances. Sitting at a table amid film and sound equipment, he activates a series of interrelated events by pulling sound reels through heads attached to a 16mm synchronizer. The sound gets patched out to guitar amps and speakers. The act of pulling the magnetic tracks through the synchronizer generates the electricity that powers the 16mm projector and the lamp that illuminates him. Contact microphones attached to the table amplify ambient sounds, and similarly positioned micro cameras project the inner workings of the whole setup. So, as in experimental film, the performance is largely about the process, about itself.

Despite all this, Land insists that he’s not married to old-school technology, that it just serves his purpose at the moment. What about the fact that even when he starts with digital, he converts it to analog? “I’m not contradicting myself,” he jokes. “I know what I’m talking about.”

Profiles of the other finalists: Pam Longobardi, Derek Larson, and Chris Chambers.

View more photos of the artist and his work here

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