April 13, 2021
Lucy Raven has dedicated much of her work to the revisualization of the American West, both in its literal, topographic emplacement and within a historical imaginary. Between film, light sculptures, installation, and stereoscopic animation, her examinations of terrestrial surveying and digital visualities, as well as the spectacular constructions and everyday mundanities of the built landscape, offer a fascinating peek into a postindustrial frontier and its extractive economies. Raven’s newest exhibition continues her work with light installation and includes the forty-five-minute film Ready Mix, which documents the workings of an Idaho concrete plant through a series of optical and durational experiments. The show runs from April 16 through January 2022 at Dia Chelsea in New York.
I WAS BORN IN TUSCON and grew up there. I feel a strong connection to Arizona, to the West, and a number of states that I’ve spent time in: California, Utah, Nevada, Idaho. But at the same time it always felt kind of arbitrary that I grew there, so far from where generations of my family had been before, coming from Eastern Europe through Canada on one side and New York on the other, before my mother’s parents moved to Tucson. Looking back, I can see that I had a relationship with the landscape that in one sense was very embodied, and at the same time existed independently of me, with a history that preceded and did not include me. There were moments of physical remove, like getting on an airplane for the first time as a kid and seeing the desert landscape from above, the drainage ponds and agricultural fields. A very abstracted, geometric view.
That sense of abstraction in relation to the place was imprinted on me from very early on but was also hard to parse. On one hand, I could clearly see geomorphic and infrastructural forms in proximity all around me; and junk, leftovers from old ideas and ambitions that are still laying around. But I also grew up understanding that there are more things present that you can’t see. There is a kind of vagueness to the physical experience of being in the desert, as opposed to how it’s often pictured. It’s not always clear where the foreground ends and the background begins, and the iconic image of a lone figure in the open landscape, something typical like a cowboy riding into the sunset, is evasive. Posing alternatives to linear, fixed-point perspective, a vanishing point on the horizon, is something I thought a lot about when making Ready Mix.
Both of my previous films, China Town (2009) and Curtains (2014), used forms of animation in relation to landscape and its extraction and distribution. In China Town, which tracked a small Nevada mine’s export of raw copper ore to China, I used photographic animation, sequences of still images joined together. In Curtains (2014), a sequel of sorts which explores the outsourcing of Hollywood’s raw imagery to post-production studios around the world to be converted from 2-D to 3-D, I animated 3-D photographs to come in and out of stereo convergence. Both works were experiments in discontinuity in relation to commodity flows that have a direct relationship to geography and ownership.
I think the technological development of moving image cameras alongside the popularity of the western as a film genre has contributed to our collective imaginary, and image, of the Western landscape. Those films were predicated on a fantasy of the empty West, available to be settled, that depends on a very selective mode of looking, or not looking, at who and what is already living on that land. I was interested in the material creation of private property, historic and contemporary, and the forces behind those processes as another way of considering what a western could be.
I shot Ready Mix in Idaho, where a friend of a friend owns a concrete plant. When I was first there, I just asked to take a look around. And I got a visual idea of what I wanted to do with it right away. I’d already been experimenting with different materials like sand, glass beads, gel, using what’s called analog modeling to design relationships between liquids and solids in natural and built combinations as they undergo different degrees of pressure: state change. So, when we started filming some of the materials that were moving very quickly during the batching process, like gravel pouring down a chute, I saw that a kind of optical liquidity, in that case a blur, was possible to capture in the image. The camera operators I was working with usually film sports like snowboarding and cycling. So, it was a very different kind of shoot for them in some ways. Maybe messier. But we developed a language onsite for approaching the camera’s movements and point of view as well as a choreography between the drone camera and the front loaders it was filming.
There’s nothing like starting a chat with someone who says, “What are you working on?” And you say a film about concrete. It’s an instant conversation stopper. I think it’s something about concrete’s heavy dumbness as a form, as a material that needs a form to be of use. There is musique concrète and concrete poetry. Why not concrete cinema, then?
— As told to Erik Morse