Terra Incognita

Essay by Elizabeth Finch to accompany Here Be Dragons exhibition at The Colby Museum

“Black box” galleries are a standard feature of the twenty-first century museum. In such spaces, three walls dissolve into darkness, leaving the remaining wall for the moving image. The arrangement is not unlike a theater, with its functional separation of audience and spectacle. The typical visitor to such a gallery senses the projector’s presence but rarely thinks about how it is positioned in the space. Why ponder a boxy contraption of wires and electronics when moving images unfold before us, seeking and invariably gaining our attention, seeking and inevitably accessing our desire for enchantment? Camouflaging a projector by hanging it from the ceiling or hiding it behind a wall strengthens a spell. This is why the device that so dramatically transforms space is carefully engineered to disappear.

Offering an alternative to the black box, the artist t s Beall’s multipart installation Here Be Dragons breaks every convention of video art display. Rather than hiding the projector, she enlists it as a collaborator, a functional, and functionally visible, element of the work. And rather than reserving a single wall as a screen, she engineers her videos to encompass the space as a whole and the people found within it. Beall achieves this feat by multiplying the number of projectors—three in all—which she positions on slowly rotating platforms. These platforms, in turn, sit atop metal structures designed by the artist to resemble radio transmitters or, more ominously, watchtowers. The setup is spare but transformative. It enlivens the space in ways that seem both new and very old, as if Beall has rethought the shadow play. In fact, visitors to the Colby Museum during her exhibition initially encountered the work from the lobby outside the gallery as video projections passed over the glass doors between the two spaces. An adhesive vinyl applied to these doors created a screen that muted the projections, transforming them into phantoms, or afterimages. For more than one visitor, the effect elicited a double take, as if to ask, “What just went by?” and “What lies beyond those doors?” Shadows emerging from the darkened gallery into the well-lit lobby anticipated the liminal state, the moment of uncertainty, that greeted viewers as the doors to the gallery closed behind them and before their eyes had adjusted to the half-light.

Here Be Dragons was commissioned by the Colby Museum for the fifth installment of Currents, an annual solo exhibition of new work by an emerging artist with connections to Maine. Beall’s installation, parts of which were built at Colby, now belongs to the Museum’s permanent collection, fulfilling the goal of the series to support cutting-edge contemporary art made in New England’s northernmost state. Beall attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 2003 and has made frequent return visits to central Maine, although she has lived in Glasgow, Scotland, since 2002. In a bit of biographical serendipity, her first and middle names (Tara Siobhan) form the initials T.S., echoing those of the modernist poet T.S. (Thomas Stearns) Eliot, another American who made his home in the United Kingdom. Beall acknowledges that Eliot’s use of initials, once a relatively common convention, inspired her own. Of course the gender-neutrality of initials is also useful to the artist. Beall prefers that hers appear as lowercase letters without periods. The atypical orthography and punctuation evokes another poet, e e cummings, but here again there is a difference, in that Beall presents her last name with the first letter capitalized. These small variations distinguish her, customizing a written manifestation of an emerging artistic identity.

As moving images set on a rotating path, the videos comprising Here Be Dragons embody transience. Viewers of this work often single out a projection, turning at the speed of its rotation so that the video segments unfold directly before them. This attempt to match the trajectory of moving images can be dizzying, and looking at Here Be Dragons in this detailed way requires accepting all that goes unexperienced, all the images that float outside a temporarily circumscribed frame. Taking the opposite approach—standing still at the center of the work—generates an only slightly better overview. The most comprehensive perspective is gained from the work’s periphery, but even here a gestalt remains persistently elusive. In contrast, the installation’s equipment, consisting of a laptop, the projectors, and assorted cables and motors, is openly on display. This equipment, moreover, is its own efficient soundtrack, emitting a robotic hum of high and low pitches mixed with the whir of fans.
While there is no masking of how Here Be Dragons works, a visual analysis of its parts fails to lessen its enigmatic nature. The platform on the taller of the two towers, which holds two projectors, is programmed to start and stop at irregular intervals, while the platform on the smaller tower, holding the third projector, moves continuously. As each platform turns, its relation to the room shifts, causing the projected image to expand, contract, and, to varying degrees, distort. Unlike their stationary counterparts, these projectors cause videos to spill onto the floor only to be swept into corners or splashed onto the ceiling. They function indiscriminately, turning walls and bodies alike into temporary screens. A light beam from a given projector hits the eye with a startling flash, momentarily interrupting the reverie induced by the circulating images. The videos variously overlap, so that an image cast upon the wall obliquely becomes the grainy backdrop for one that arrives directly for a transient moment of perfection. Breaking another convention, the one that specifies that the projected image will be a rectangle neatly contained by a rectangular screen, the form of this perfection is a circle that quickly dissipates, stretching out like a roving searchlight.

Night skies and other fragments of landscape figure prominently in Here Be Dragons. Beall has found her most recent visual material online, grouping downloaded clips into a series of nonnarrative sequences. These include cameras that document the paths of unmanned military drone planes as well as imagery from Antarctic research stations, active war zones, surveilled borders, and other forbidding sites. The places are faraway and foreign, otherworldly, and in some cases extremely dangerous. Beall’s choice of content reminds us that just as surveillance cameras occupy parking lots, lobbies, and busy intersections, so too do they flourish in places where people and buildings are scarce. These cameras, the ones with hardship posts, animate the space via Beall’s carefully orchestrated display: The projectors are conduits for the cameras that are “out there.” Their restlessness evokes ubiquity and a sense of inescapability. To demonstrate cameras in action, Beall has connected one of the projectors to a laptop that streams real-time video from selected webcameras. The remaining two projectors display prerecorded footage, some of which utilizes time-lapse technology that condenses visual information in places—such as a polar region in the dark confines of winter—where very little can be seen.

Here Be Dragons marks Beall’s first use of found video content. Prior to this project, she made videos that convey a sense of the found object within the moving image. This is true of Flotilla from 2003, in which a floating raft becomes gradually recognizable—surfacing like a mirage—only to blur and disappear again as the stationary camera returns its focus to the immediate foreground, demarcated by the mesh grid of a window screen. A stationary camera and a singular subject also structure Beall’s 2004 homage to the artist Jannis Kounellis’s 1969 exhibition of 12 live horses at the Galleria L’Attico in Rome. Beall reprised this feat by situating an untethered horse in Tramway, a gallery in Glasgow, where it walked into and out of her camera’s static field of vision. In the video of this event, which was installed in the same gallery, post-performance, an audio recording of the horse’s movements was replicated spatially by distributing sound to four speakers positioned to surround the viewer. Using sound as a clue, the viewer anticipated the horse before it entered the camera frame so that sound and image formed an impromptu feedback loop. Returning to water as a backdrop for a central image in for Richard, from 2004, Beall attached a camera to a moving boat, focusing it on a monumental ramp raised perpendicular to the deck. Land and water pass by this steel form—the artist acknowledges her choice of subject as a tribute to the sculptor Richard Serra—which remains impassive, like a picture imbedded in a passing scene.

In Here Be Dragons, Beall has given up the stationary video frame and the singular subject for moving images found on the Internet. In essence, she has exchanged one set of creative restrictions for another, resisting the impulse to add her own footage to the mix. Her current image strategy recalls early video artists’ appropriations from the flow of broadcast television. Like Nam June Paik, a video art pioneer who helped establish the medium in the mid-1960s, when the first portable video camera became available to consumers, Beall recognizes the global reach of the moving image. And both artists have made video works that immerse viewers while also emphasizing the means of display. Paik is famous for his towering walls of televisions, which he orchestrated to present content gathered from mainstream media mixed or “synthesized” (his preferred term) with his own psychedelic and anarchic creations. Beall’s appropriations take a different approach, leaving the images she finds unaltered. In Here Be Dragons she utilizes the specific visual characteristics of videos derived from remote cameras—their graininess and murkiness, their blips and static, and the telltale emerald green cast of night-vision technology. Prominent digital time codes intrude upon several of the video sequences; other “as found” segments display censored blocks comparable to the areas of inked-out text found in a declassified file.

Looking closely at Here Be Dragons eventually reveals its particular construction, the seams and rivets that interrupt its flow. Instead of image manipulation, Beall prefers to edit and cut. There are brief moments of visual drama in some of her moving-image compilations (a sublime aurora australis streams through one particularly memorable sequence in Here Be Dragons), but the vast majority is distinguished by an abiding lack of specificity. A sandstorm indicates a desert, perhaps, while waving palm trees suggest the coast. A snaking line captured from an airplane at a pattern-blending, abstraction-making altitude is probably a river, unless it is a road. And while the images Beall chooses are often troubling—the impulse to document human conflict appears to be the driving force behind some of the sites she visits for content—they contain minimal action and no violence.

Beall’s found images suggest she is fascinated by watchfulness itself, by the unscripted time between events, and by our desire for cameras to do what we cannot: look incessantly. This distinguishes her from Paik, who came of age during the Cold War, an era of good and bad certainties embodied by starkly defined borders, both real and ideological. Paik operated from the utopic belief that creatively deployed media technologies would unite the world through an “electronic superhighway.” He offered a well-timed alternative to the perceived perils of television. Beall’s work, by contrast, has emerged in the epoque of infamous “unknown unknowns” and the permanent Orange Alert. Her source images are associated with information rather than entertainment or Paik’s creative empowerment, and her work is attuned to the conditional promise of cameras in the field. A video camera might document the planting of an improvised explosive device, but often this threat is identified retrospectively. It slips by unnoticed, until, after an explosion, archived footage pinpoints a lost opportunity to stop what has already happened. Cameras in environments like the Antarctic function as placeholders, indicators of national and scientific interests. A connoisseur of the web cam and other types of surveillance technologies, Beall asks us to consider the various ways that cameras function as surrogates. How are we shaped by knowledge gained through imagery derived remotely?

The title Here Be Dragons describes a place where danger lurks. A translation of the Latin hic sunt dracones, the phrase derives from the practice of placing serpents or other mythological creatures at the edges of medieval maps, where known territories ceded to terra incognita. Today the world is thoroughly mapped, but science fiction writers still make use of “here be dragons” and its variants, as do computer programmers seeking to embellish HTML code with suitably ominous warnings. The phrase remains relevant because it summarizes, and anxiously visualizes, the imagined consequences of not knowing. No doubt this anxiety, as well as the motivating promise of riches, figured in the colonial exploits of early European explorers. Fear of and desire for the unknown also fueled the westward expansion of the United States. It was in this era, and specifically in 1839, that the invention of photography was announced. Beall traces our current dependence on video documentation to this invention, and indeed early practitioners of photography quickly recognized the medium’s potential as a tool for exploration and the popularization of a place. In 1861, Carleton Watkins made his first photographic expedition to the Yosemite Valley, returning with his “mammoth-plate” images of its natural splendors. Seeing Watkins’s photograph of the Grizzly Giant, a massive sequoia tree in the Mariposa Grove, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that Watkins had “made the tree possible.” Watkins’s photographs may not have made Yosemite National Park possible, but they were uniquely persuasive in the mid-19th-century campaign to preserve one of the world’s most beautiful valleys. Photographic expeditions were also instrumental in confirming the path of the first transcontinental railroad, which linked the United States’ Atlantic and Pacific coasts in 1869. The mythic idea of the American West as a vast, largely untouched frontier emerged photographically. Light-dependent imagery proved the West truly and undeniably existed.

We may be less inclined than our forbearers to believe in photographic truths, but we still use cameras to mark territories and stake claims. Here Be Dragons reminds us that moving-image cameras have mostly supplanted still images in places where land remains in dispute, and where instability, or simply the potential for foul play, reigns. It also suggests that the landscapes we seek to conquer can be equated with some of our deepest longings, and that these places have dwindled to outlying or contested areas, places where it is often hard if not impossible to live. In all respects, Here Be Dragons is a disturbing work, but it is also one that mesmerizes, as its images circulate about us, for something like forever.

1 David E. Chinitz writes of “men with initials” in his T.S. Eliot and the Cultural Divide (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 153.
2 In actuality, Cummings also presented his name using standard orthography and punctuation. “e e cummings” may have been the preference of editors seeking to distinguish the “lowercase poet.”
3 These examples of the phrase’s contemporary uses derive from the Wikipedia page for “Here Be Dragons,” which has recently been admonished for containing “Lists of miscellaneous information.” Ponder these and other miscellanea while they last at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Here_be_dragons.
4 Ralph Waldo Emerson cited in the exhibition catalogue Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception, ed. Douglas R. Nickel (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999), 10.
5 See Susan Danly’s essay “Photography, Railroad, and Natural Resources in the Arid West: Photographs by Alexander Gardner and A. J. Russell,” in the exhibition catalogue Perpetual Mirage: Photographic Narratives of the Desert West, ed. May Castleberry (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1996), 49–55.