Fly Caught in the Eye of a Filmmaker Making a Documentary about an Insect Trap (2013)
icelandic midge | ionized 24k gold | insect pin
“My body is all eyes.
Look at it!
Be not afraid.
I look in all directions!”
In the summer of 2013, while shooting 16mm film of a Malaise Trap (ubiquitous trap for gathering flying insects), I temporarily lost my vision when a small flying midge landed right in my eye. The sting forced me to stop the camera, everything went black as I squeezed the muscles in my forehead. It was a complex situation, a fly caught in the eye of a filmmaker making a documentary about an insect trap.... The Malaise trap is considered by initiated entomologists as a passive entity, because it gathers its bounty of flying insects while standing still, intersecting with their flight paths, which as it seems, are largely determined by currents of wind which flow through the immediate surroundings, interweaving with higher-level weather patterns. We were shooting near Iceland’s most powerful fumarole, and standing near to it with my eyes closed made me realize just how loud this breathing entity actually was. It was at a volume which made the deep roaring sound inseparable from the force which was apparently creating it. I wasn’t just listening to the center of the earth, but encountering it as it spilled out into this completely empty, frigid landscape. Having finally removed my gloves I was able to pry my eye open for a moment and remove the still intact specimen.
Minuscule, around two millimeters in size, the midge lay dead in my cupped palm. Wings and legs out, perfectly intact. The impact of this situation was phenomenal, phenomenological even, questions slipped into my awareness without pressure or extended effort:
What happens when bodies of knowledge shift back towards the body itself?
What does it mean to accept or reject the worldviews which study life through its carcass?
It was clear that from this moment onward, for me, the cinema had somehow become obsolete, instantaneously, and that this tiny bug demarcated the last exposed frame of film in our documentary. For if this sequence of events can transform my body itself into a insect trap (the vary subject of our developing film), then the cinematic as a passive experience about something, must be merely the stepping stone toward higher degrees of social complexity and emergence; utilizing the cinematic space of the theater for purposes other than the cinema itself. Perhaps instead of temporary disorientation driven by a screen designed to auto-erotically manipulate the senses, the cinematic has been slowly becoming an arena for intimate, complex forms of nonlinear sensory sociality. An arena of alignment so-to-speak. A space/place which brings attentive focus back upon our own bodies, and upon the relationships we have with each others body. They say that blinking patterns and heart rates can become synced while audiences watch films; what are the implications of this phenomena for the continued development of cinema as a social experience of disorientation? How does a film take this seriously, without attempting to merely trick and trap the refresh rate of the eye?
The proximity of a fly in the eye: the organ of abstraction is obstructed, there is no room left for distanced representation. I have immortalized this tiny bug because it stands in for a type of cinema which can no longer entertain its self-image as a vehicle for knowledge production, but rather a socially driven experience of radical honesty. Ethnographic documentation has always relied upon the capacity to objectify and transform the unknown or the other-ly into knowledge, often to the detriment of the subjects it documents. This strange fractaline experience however, of a fly caught in the eye, seeds a new type of cinematic principle; that the more particular and personal a story is, the more universal it becomes.
“As a bundle of potentials in an ever unfolding field of forces and energies, the body moves and is moved not because it is driven by some internal agency, wrapped up in the package, but because as fast as it is gathering or winding itself up, it is forever unraveling or unwinding, alternatively breathing in and out.”
Fly in hand we arrived at the Natural History Museum in Stockholm, where Rene Malaise worked for the latter end of his life. The entomology department greeted us with a slight caution. The tiny bug may not withstand the necessary preparations for scanning electron microscopy. Entomologists employ the scanning electron microscope to enable the imaging of insect specimens at optimally high resolution. The prosthetic vision of the SEM initiates a scientific voyage into foreign plateaus of microscopic scale, transforming insect bodies into cartographic maps of discreetly organized topography. The fine resolution of an SEM scan presents a dense and complex surface rife with anomaly, an unknown land presenting the eye with a rich terrain for exploration.
Prior to SEM imaging, specimens are coated with a thin layer of a conductive metal, namely gold, through a process known as ‘sputtering’. The skin of the insect is substituted for an artificial armor. The insect sits in a vacuum sealed chamber, rotating under a shower of vaporized gold, magnetized to the insect’s skin by positive and negatively charged ions. The dispersal of gold in a vacuum ensures an even coating of the metallic particles. This incredibly thin surface layer maintains the topography of the specimen whilst creating a homogeneous surface that repels negatively charged electrons. This substrate generates the thing we refer to as an ‘image’, however the SEM rendering is not a real image, but rather the visual index of a negative space outlined by the collision and repulsion of oppositely charged electrons. As if to cement this contract of ultimate abstraction, the insect bodies, once prepared and visualized through the SEM procedure, are discarded immediately afterwards or left in dusty piles near the bin.
For this bug however, we halted the procedure at the stage of the gold-sputter and withdrew our specimen and the implications it beholds, both now evenly coated in gold. The effigy alone is what remains as the soul material component of this documentary project, somehow compacted within the bounds of its body the cumulative bulk of this would-be film, from its moment of conception in Southern California, to its furthest reaches near that fumerole close to the arctic ocean.
New Wight Gallery, UCLA, 2014
collaboration with Hermione Spriggs