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Peter Hutton, 3 Landscapes, 2011
Courtesy: the artist

Lived Experience

Luke Fowler and Peter Hutton have their own particular lines of research that have at times led to synergies, but which above all share precise affinities, starting with the anthropological and historical intent of their films—which explore geographical places and human movements with a poetic impulse—to achieve the attitude of the true explorer, the artist who crosses localities and boldly roams in search of stories. As readers, we can let ourselves be wafted along on their conversation, in pursuit of carovans of camels crossing the horizon, observing salt mines and peasants at work...

Luke Fowler: I understand you are filming your next project in three places: Detroit, Michigan; Mekelle, Ethiopia; and the Hudson River Valley in New York State. What drew you to these locations?

Peter Hutton: The new film is tentatively titled Three Landscapes. The first section was shot near Detroit, where I grew up. I worked as a merchant seaman on the Great Lakes during the 1960s (I continued to work on ships throughout the early 1970s) and my union hall was in River Rouge, a heavily industrial area. I spent a few weeks there again three years ago, documenting a steel plant called Zug Island, which is still functioning. It was a security nightmare to film. Another steel mill, an abandoned one, became a source of some additional images.

I traveled along West Jefferson Avenue nearby, and recorded whatever appealed to me. It culminated in a study of two men walking up the suspension cable of the Ambassador Bridge, which connects Detroit with Windsor, Canada. All the material feels like a dream, which is appropriate, since so much of the landscape surrounding Detroit is dead.

The Hudson River Valley is my home. In the summertime I’m always amazed at how beautiful the landscape is. The dry green meadows, where the hay bales cast long shadows at that magical hour of the day. The clouds rolling above the Catskill mountains—huge thunderheads—are stunning, evoking dreams. I remember reading an account of Henry Hudson’s voyage up the Hudson River, and how fragrant the land was to the sailors on board his ship; they could smell the abundant fruit trees. From the dispiriting climates of Western Europe they thought they had arrived in paradise.

The final landscape I will shoot is Ethiopia. In 1968 the filmmaker Robert Gardner went to the Dallol Depression and made a very short film about the Afar camel herders who harvest salt there. It’s the lowest spot in Africa, which is essentially a vast salt deposit. It’s also one of the hottest places on Earth. In 2010 we showed his film as part of a retrospective of his work at Bard College, where I have been teaching since 1984. Gardner asked me then if I would be interested in going to Dallol to expand on what he did in 1968. His film is quite beautiful but also very short. I agreed.

So, last year I went to Ethiopia with my wife and a cinematographer friend, Mott Hupfel. We planned to camp out in the area for five days. The day before we were to depart to Mekelle from Addis Ababa, a group of rebels from Eritrea came across the border, murdered six European tourists, and kidnapped two German citizens. As a result, the Ethiopian government shut down foreign travel to that region.

Now it’s a year later and I’m preparing to go back and try again. One of the most haunting images from Gardner’s footage is a distant shot of a camel caravan crossing the horizon. Because of the intense heat waves, the landscape seems to be melting. One is not sure if it is real or a hallucination. I am haunted by that image—it is like something you might see right before death, an ancient memory about traveling.

This, I hope, will be the focus of my film. What exactly this has to do with my material of Detroit, or for that matter the Hudson River Valley, I’m not entirely sure. There is some irony, however, in the fact that I shot a huge pile of salt in Detroit three years ago. There is a vast salt mine under that area of the city. I actually tried to go into the mine and shoot in the 1960s but was denied permission at that time. What a metaphor for Detroit!

Luke Fowler, A Grammar of Moving, 2010
Courtesy: the artist; The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow; Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne

LF: You spend so much time studying the movement of people, work, and the environment. Do you see your work as having an intrinsic anthropological and historical value? I do see my work in that way.

PH: Well, for instance, the slow processes of humans engaged in agriculture in the Hudson River Valley are quite remarkable to watch, and I believe that it is necessary to record that agrarian sense of time. All the figures working: farmers plowing the rich black soil and cutting the hay, planting and harvesting crops. They are young and old, from different parts of the world, all moving very slowly across the land. Often I’ll watch a group crouched over pulling weeds for hours in the blazing sun, just inching along. Time almost stops. It’s an activity that seems more suitable to painting; often the clouds are moving faster than the workers. Is this cinematic? The slowness seems to me a revelation of sorts. These people are undoubtedly going to heaven in my world; they belong there after bending down all day in the summer heat.

There are also, of course, machines, like the tractors that rumble along cutting hay; they look as though they are swimming through the long grass. The funny hay baling machines look like large mechanical bugs shitting out very large, round turds that roll along the ground with steam rising, which is actually hay dust. How biomorphic and allegorical it looks to me.

LF: Your films often remind me of Raymond Williams’s book The Country and the City, where he talks about the false dichotomy between those two geographies. For example how people from the city view the country with romantic whimsy, though in reality the country is a place of work that interconnects with the city in vital lines of communication, industry, and politics.

Do you remember the quote I used in our film The Poor Stockinger, where Williams talks about the idea in painting of “the prospect”:

The signs of people working in the landscape are often seen as obtrusive of spoiling the landscape... There is a sense that when you’re looking at a picture, you want to control and compose the elements, you want in a sense to put a frame around them, as people still do in photography. Too much movement, too much life is going to contradict what you are looking for.

I think the idea in the 18th century of “the prospect,” where you found yourself a commanding point of view and looked over some tract of the country, which was increasingly often like landscape pictures that you’d seen... that [practice] does involve separation from the country as a place of life and work.

How do these ideas relate to your work?

PH: I have traditionally bounced back and forth between city and country projects and definitely feel they are connected in many ways. It’s very ironic in today’s crumbling urban spaces—Detroit, for example—where the city is being encroached upon by the country by way of “urban gardens” and “country” markets, the “green belts” and the strong importance of “open spaces.” I always thought the experience of being at sea gave me a greater awareness of urban spaces in that it made me acutely aware of nature’s influence on the city environment.

I remember once reading an account by the painter Albert Pinkham Ryder. There was a parade in Greenwich Village and he was sitting on the curb watching clouds overhead. I’ve always loved the seascapes he painted of New Bedford, Massachusetts. I was a painter when I was young, and painting remains a primary influence on my filmmaking.

There is a lot of self-referencing in many of your recent films, very much like a diary. Why is that?

LF: It’s pure narcissism! Ha, just kidding. I think there are many reasons. One is a reaction against the spurious notion of objectivity in nonfiction film—that somehow these films are impartial or objective and do not encode the beliefs and opinions of the makers. I remember watching documentaries on the BBC when I was growing up and the end credits would list no director, only a producer. Which confused me, as quite often there would be the most overpowering “voice of God” narrator over the top of the imagery.

Sometimes it can be simply a pragmatic reason, you know, to bring a figure into the frame. I have also filmed people I’ve worked with or lived with: Lee Patterson, Eric La Casa, Toshiya Tsunoda, my mother. I believe you and George are on that list now too.

Peter Hutton, Boston Fire, 1979
Courtesy: the artist

PH: Can you talk about your desire to create alternative histories regarding characters from social history: R. D. Laing, Raymond Williams, et cetera? What feeds your urge, as an artist, to revisit history?

LF: Of course we both know that history is constructed, researched, edited, and structured (often around narratives). I am inclined to reject the simple motives that narrative or documentary film often provides us with. Instead I adopt, as you do, an open, observational tendency, with a preference toward the polyvalent.

You mention Raymond Williams, who I have not ever devoted a film to, and perhaps I should. I find his work important in that it attempted to expand into sociology and literature in the late 1950s the notion of a “common culture” and the importance of “lived experience.”

R. D. Laing, in whom we share a mutual interest, also put emphasis on the experiences of the people he worked for and broke bread with. He wanted to understand the thoughts and utterances of those who conventional psychiatry had cast off as unintelligible, illogical, mad. His manner was personal as opposed to diagnostic; he avoided categorizing and schematizing human experience. He was prescient in stating that madness was often a political issue with strong social, environmental, and interpersonal dimensions.

In short, I believe in what E. P. Thompson hoped to achieve in those North Yorkshire WEA night classes: the need to create more revolutionaries. He wanted to reconnect working people with a history of dissent and struggle, to show them they had the agency to shape their own history. If history is a construct, it’s a construct that is owned by the victors. I hope to return history to the voices that in those struggles have become marginalized.
We have in the past discussed our mutual admiration for the work of your peers James Benning and Nathaniel Dorsky, and yet you seem equally close, personally and professionally, to the anthropological filmmaking of Robert Gardner. Do you think your work somehow bridges the different values of these two distinct worlds? Or perhaps they are not as distinct as I perceive them.

PH: When I started making films in the 1960s, I thought all I really needed to do was live an interesting life and continue to travel, and things would take care of themselves. I’ve always admired artists who lived in the world. Gardner did just that. Ben Rivers, whom I greatly admire, does that too. I think it’s got a lot to do with the idea that “truth is stranger than fiction.” I’ve always felt that there is an amazing film going on all day, every day, right in front of us.

When I was young in the 1950s my father often took me and my brother to see travelogues screened at the Detroit Art Institute. These were wonderful amateur movies made by a wide variety of people who loved traveling. They ranged from trips to Yellowstone National Park in the U.S. to more exotic fare, films made in Europe and Asia. Some were quite cleverly shot on Bolex; others were more direct, with heavy-handed use of voice-over. My father loved these films. He had made his own photographic records of his travels as a merchant seaman when he was young. His photo album greatly affected me as a child. I remember going to see Mondo Cane with him when it played in a theater in Detroit. In the early 1960s he created a film society with a friend, and they screened films by Jacques Tati, among others. He once got a letter from Tati thanking him for showing Mr. Hulot’s Holiday so often!

These influences seeped into my rather naive brain. I always wanted to be an artist but never imagined I would end up making movies. Then in the mid-1960s I picked up an 8-millimeter camera and began documenting performances that I had created as a sculpture student at the San Francisco Art Institute. The films abstracted the performance and were far more interesting for me. It was at this time that I began considering film a suitable medium for my creative yearnings.

I sometimes think that I’ll someday end up painting again. The demise of film is helping hasten that. Why do we make films, anyway? We both share a love of film and creating records of our lives directly on film.

LF: When I am making a film I am often motivated by the idea that I feel comfortable inhabiting the world of my subject for a long period of time. During this period I throw out, usually quite quickly, any idea of a thesis, script, or preconceived notion in order to drift between intuition, experience, and research. Its not that I am afraid of committing to an idea or making a statement; I am just resistant to a positivist procedure that forecloses on experience, on being able to react to the shifting realizations and circumstances that inevitably come about during the process of making.

I learn, in the broadest terms, through the making. In return, I feel I have a duty to offer something back to the public that honestly reflects my process and method. Although I realize that (as with your films, which are all silent) some of what I am trying to do may be lost on people who are used to channel surfing, or constantly scouring the Internet.

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