Saara Ekström, Beacon (2019)
ABOUT THE ARTWORK
8mm film transferred to HD video
Courtesy of the artist
BEACON (2019) is a performance, expanded cinema event and an 8 mm film documenting endangered plants, sea life and insects from the Finnish archipelago. It is a mobile projection made to be taken out of the gallery context and into the streets, right among the people living in the community of Stavanger.
As a beacon guides ships through the darkness, illuminating random pieces of land and sea, the work aims to guide and direct our attention to small and seemingly unremarkable things living, breathing and growing around us. In collaboration with researchers from the Archipelago Research Institute, a part of the Biodiversity Unit of the University of Turku, Ekström documents endangered plants, sea life and insects affected, not only by the climate change, but also by the aggressively growing foresting industry and fish farming, dictated by an exploitive appetite that ignores the dramatic effects it will have on biodiversity. The Institute participates in multidisciplinary research of the Baltic Sea, with a special focus on long term environmental monitoring of the Archipelago Sea. The film consists of observations on both macro- and microlevel, and it will be shot on 8mm B&W film.
BEACON has been commissioned by the Screen City Biennial and premiered during the 2019 biennial edition Ecologies – lost, found and continued.
Saara Ekström on Beacon and ‘new’ ways of making art
On the coasts and seashores, beacons and lighthouses illuminate the darkness. The concentrated beams sweep over the sea and land, and while guiding navigators to safety, they light up random pieces of landscape, bringing minor but vitally important things into focus.
Beacon is a performance, expanded cinema event and an 8 mm film documenting endangered nature in the Finnish archipelago. It radiates light, attracts attention and functions as a navigational tool in times that feel muddled and confusing.
Beacon is also born out of a desire to find new forms for presenting moving images in urban surroundings. In comparison to the sterile museums and commercial galleries, I hoped to reach people on a more direct and intimate base and to engage art as a means for empathetic social activism and moral action. This ethos was warmly received by the curators Daniela Arriado and Vanina Saracino, who commissioned the work to be launched in Stavanger, Norway, during the Screen City Biennial – Ecologies – Lost, Found and Continued in October 2019.
Beacon concentrates on modest and seemingly insignificant details in our surroundings. The project was made between March and September 2019 at the Archipelago Research Station of Turku University on the island of Seili, the nature conservation area on the island of Ruissalo and on Kökar, one of the small isolated islands in the Åland archipelago. In these places, you gradually become in tune with the cliffs, fields, sea, and weather. Shot on narrow strips of B&W film, the work captures details of fragile habitats and the flora and fauna that makes them so unique. These observations – a butterfly unfolding its wings, a spider weaving its web, the falling rain making patterns in water – are all graspable matters that we recognize, but seldom really see.
With the assistance of biologists doing long-term environmental monitoring of the Baltic Sea region, I also realized that despite all the alarming news, there are ways of restoring disappearing ecosystems. This is something Beacon also strives to illustrate. By bringing nature back into city centers, it re-introduces species, plants, and fields into environments where they once thrived.
Since a few years back, I’ve been opting to work with vintage cameras and analog film. There are various reasons for this. In the time of manipulated digital images, the film feels more concrete, real and uncorrupted. The process is also very different – you are not aware whether your shooting sessions have been successful until you see the processed material much later. Up to that moment you are in the dark with what the results might be. If something goes wrong (your camera brakes down, the processing has gone to hell, the film has been exposed to light, the storage has been too warm, etc.) the core of what you have left is the intense immersion in the moment of observation, without having the possibility to distance yourself in order to check the results right away. This has become a profound part of my work.
Eventually, for practical reasons, the film gets scanned and digitized, but the original format is still the organic, light-sensitive, living material, involving (at least for me) a nearly magical and alchemical process of turning light into the image, compared to digital data made of zeros and ones. This changing, sometimes unpredictable material is closer to us than the electronic information, and that is why the film feels more naturally connected with people around me.
During the Screen City Biennial, the filmed material was projected with small portable pico-beamers on buildings and the clothing and skin of the audience, inviting passersby to shelter the flickering, grainy and delicate realms in the cups of their hands. It was beautiful to see how the busy and altruistic life of ants merged with the viewers, and how rain made open palms seem almost liquid, touched by hundreds of raindrops transported by the film. Here technology entered the stage and became a carrier of originally analogue data, as the two mediums joined in a mutually beneficial union. Without the digital beamers, the work could never have taken its movable and fluid form, which along with the organic film was one of the core ideas of the Beacon. It was astonishing how our group of performers could carry these entire worlds with us on devices that fitted in our pockets. Since the source of the videos was almost invisible, it permitted viewers to fully concentrate on images that seemed to spawn practically out of nowhere – or more accurately: out of love for something that needed to be illuminated, shared, felt and heard in order for it to survive.
For my previous work, I’ve collaborated with radiologists specialized in tomographies, experimented with digital time-lapse animations, made x-rays and used digital effects of various kinds. These were all tools to venture further into hidden worlds, to visualize time through gradual processes of growth and decay, and to demonstrate our closeness to everything that lives and exists with and around us. Recently I’ve been studying time from a slightly different angle and started working with vintage cameras and film. As our world is getting faster and increasingly chaotic, this is one way of making it run a bit slower, taking our time to register and even to change some of the events we are witnessing.
Image: Saara Ekström, Beacon, 2019; director and cinematography: Saara Ekström; editing assistant: Eero Tammi; 8mm film converted to 2K digital format; expanded cinema event.