Interview by Elizabeth Finch, The Colby Museum


As part of Currents 5 catalog published 2010 for Here Be Dragons exhibition

Elizabeth Finch: Given your training as a photographer, what led you to work with video and video installation?
t s Beall: I was trained as a still photographer, and also as a painter, but ultimately I wasn’t satisfied with either. I had a desire to create environments that were more immersive and more physically confrontational than I was able to achieve with two-dimensional work. Therefore my first video works were about still imagery, but they had very physical or sculptural concerns: with the scale of projection in relation to the body, with the motion of the subject ‘around’ the viewer, etc.
My approach to video as a medium discards most of the fast-paced methods that are prevalent in television and film today, and instead examines things slowly. Because of this my practice has been referred to as a ‘counter practice’. I try to identify our expectations of the camera, and then counter them.
Here Be Dragons is rooted in a similar contrast of expectations. I was thinking about the history of landscape images, and how these kinds of images -- Muybridge’s original images of Yosemite, for example, or William Henry Jackson’s images of Yellowstone -- shaped people’s imagination during the expansion of the American West. Or the whole weird notion of safari ‘trophy’ pictures--Images from Theodore Roosevelt’s trips to Africa, for instance. The camera was used as a tool for capturing-- the undiscovered landscape, the unexplored wilderness, the untamed jungle. I began to ask myself if there were contemporary equivalents to these kinds of historical images—if there was a connection between historical notions of landscape and present-day images of the land.

EF: The mode of presentation in Here Be Dragons is very different from what has become the tradition of showing video in an otherwise empty dark space, or “black box.” How did your video towers come to be?
tsB: The towers stem from my interest in modern landscape images – and specifically of surveillance or moving images of the ‘frontier.’ I was interested in presenting these images as roving, or restless -- literally without ground. I began thinking about the mechanisms of recording, transferring, broadcasting and listening we use today. The towers have a sort of outpost feeling to me, and are meant to be an amalgam of a cell phone and radio towers, of airport towers and lighthouses. They are also a kind of beacon.
But these ‘beacons’ are blind to their own environment. They ‘see’ the space they are projecting but they neither record nor transmit images from their own context, and in that way they are placeless. They represent a rootless, roving eye, which made sense to me given that the imagery was all found online—in some ways the web is the ultimate non-place.

EF: I’m interested in what you just said about the towers being “blind” because the viewer also experiences something like momentary blindness when the projector rotates and hits the eyes. Would you agree there is juxtaposition in Here Be Dragons between an immersive, and even magical, experience and something quite the opposite, quite jarring?
tsB: I was hoping to create an environment that was at times very immersive -- as the images that sweep around the space, bathing the viewer in color and light, are beautiful – but I also wanted to create a space that was at times confusing, or dislocating. The projected images depict contested spaces--these are places that are unstable, at war, under pressure, and at some point as you are immersed in these images that becomes clear. Because of this opposition, for me the work has a slightly sinister, relentless quality to it. The slow, predetermined movement of the images, and the whine of the motors also emphasize this.
As the projector beam crosses over the viewer, the video functions like a searchlight, or spotlight, with the viewers in its gaze. But as mentioned, the towers see only what they receive—through the viewer, beyond the space, transmitting images from elsewhere.

EF: Here Be Dragons consists of moving images that also rotate. Your inspiration—historic landscape photography—is static, but your source imagery is not. How was found imagery more useful to you than what you could shoot?
tsB: Here Be Dragons uses very specific kinds of found imagery as a way of examining how our perception of certain kinds of places is generated and disseminated. The subject of the work is in essence an examination of image making, rather than the actual images themselves.
I’m trying to understand a certain kind of looking, and how the actual images relate to our perception of particular iconic images. I’m considering historic images in relation to modern images made with constantly developing technology, in an effort to understand a certain mode of seeing. In doing so, I’m not only examining our relationship to where these images come from -- these contested and often unreachable places -- but also considering how these images relate to our mental projections, or rather our preconceived notions of frontier, and conquest.

EF: You mentioned you are working with “surveillance images of the land.” Can you speak a bit more about the types of images you have sought out?
tsB: I started to identify ‘contested spaces’ (any definition of that phrase would be a conversation in it’s own right) and then looked at the kind of images that were being made of those landscapes. This included footage from long-range infrared cameras at the border between the US and Mexico, unmanned drone footage and target camera footage from Iraq and Afghanistan, and footage from scientific expeditions -- especially from Antarctica, where no one owns the land, but many countries are ‘maintaining a presence’.
So I ended up looking at a lot of military and governmental footage that was in the public realm, thinking about them in relation to certain historic images of landscape, and the use of the camera then and now.

EF: Where has Here Be Dragons taken your work? Where is the frontier of your practice now?
tsB: My research for Here Be Dragons brought up a lot of questions about contemporary images of landscape and the use of the camera as a tool for expansion, and I will no doubt be continuing along these lines for some time. I tend to approach ideas I’m interested in from several different perspectives, which means I often switch up the form/media of the work. It's a mapping process.
I’ve been thinking about Here Be Dragons in relation to panoramas, and looking at the history of panoramas and cycloramas, thinking about purpose-built spaces and immersive landscapes in that vein. And I’ve started shooting stills with an old sterographic camera, and working with online footage shot with infrared goggles—This technology captures not only what is recorded but also the movement of the body of the person recording, of both the viewer and the shooter, so my focus of attention within the frame is shifting.
I’ve also been collecting or archiving images from particular webcams for more than a year now, and have started putting together footage from them depicting long periods of time. For example one new piece, The Sky Grows Darker Yet, uses footage from the 40 darkest days in Antarctica. These cameras are live-streaming darkness most of the winter, and most nights—the work is mostly black static, with a timestamp. I love it.