In this interview Dominic Redfern discusses his fascination with cyanobacteria – ancient bacteria responsible for life on this planet. He deliberates on working within a post-documentary framework, shooting at the edge of the human eye’s perception, and creating a cosmology through music.
Experimenta: The work you’re making for Experimenta Life Forms focuses on ancient biological life forms. Can you discuss what drew you to these?
Dominic: When thinking about life as we know it there are two big questions: the origins of consciousness and the origins of life itself. We don’t have the answer for either of these big, big questions.
For me, these are ontological questions, questions about the nature of being. But I am a materialist. That is, I believe that reality is made up of matter, and all things are reducible to material functions. In that framework even our thoughts, and by correlation our consciousness, are electro-chemical phenomena. But that doesn’t reduce life for me, it makes it entirely wonderous. So, when I ask those typically existential questions about the meaning of life and the nature of being a human being – which I have done since I was a teenager – I look to what science and history can tell us. When I wanted to find out about the origins of life, I went to the first identifiable, verifiable step in the process that we know about within the limits of our current knowledge. And that is cyanobacteria. They are astonishing, miraculous even, in what they have been responsible for in terms of life on the planet, which is, essentially, all of it. So, this work is a kind of cosmology for me, it is about how all the astounding diversity of life on our planet comes back to a single sparking moment when the inanimate became animate.
Experimenta: You describe your practice as post-documentary. How does this approach inform the work you’re making for Life Forms?
Dominic: The term post-documentary recognises my fallibility, my subjectivity, my limits as a storyteller.
It is Martha Rosler’s term originally and refers to the fact that the truth claims of photography are redundant. The post is a recognition of the fact that there is no objectivity – we can never step outside of our subjectivity. Wherever you go, there you are. That is to say, everything we know we can only know from within the limits of being one human at one particular place and time. It doesn’t matter that I think science is on my side because that is just one system of knowledge amongst others. It is just one claim to truth. Documentary, historically, claimed to concern itself with the real world, the historical world, as opposed to the fictive world of narrative cinema. But over the last few decades, we have come to recognise that all claims to truth, all positions, emerge out of a context and all feel equally true to the people that hold them. With that in mind, and remembering that I am not a scientist, I make no claim to objectivity. So, my work doesn’t pretend to give you all the facts. It is a story, amongst many that are told. It is a matter of belief, of faith, not fact.
Experimenta: You have an astute eye for capturing the microscopic. How do you go about recording such precise detail in your video?
Dominic: I never shoot microscopically – I always shoot at the edge of what is perceptible to the human eye.
When I started to get interested in making work concerned with history, I was very aware of the critiques of the single point perspective of painting in the western tradition after the Renaissance. Photography inherited, and was arguably based upon, that system of seeing and capturing our visual experience. So, the traditional photographic – and videographic – landscape composition was tied up with the idea of the eye that captures, that stands above and outside, and I wasn’t interested in that. I also felt there was nothing I could really contribute to seeing the landscape in that way. It had already been done far better than I could ever do it and it just didn’t interest me, it didn’t capture my imagination.
Life on the edge of our perceptions, the world of overlooked complexity, is what draws my attention. Not the big stuff, the nature porn-like polar bears. David Attenborough has that covered, but rather the weeds, the rubbish, the dirt, the insects – that’s what I am interested in, the overlooked stuff that is the substance of our everyday environment. The world of visual complexity, the textural world, a world not reduced to a horizon, seems more in line with my experience of life. That is, I feel the kaleidoscope of our sensory life is an experience characterised by complexity and immersion, not clarity and schemata. That’s why I do it, but how is a different matter. I use a series of lenses and a really good tripod head and I practice the shots over and over, rehearsing a choreography of movement that traces a line through whatever it is I am looking at. Then I get maybe one shot out of twenty that works and that I use in the final piece.
Experimenta: Music and narration also play a big part in the soundscape of your works, tell us more about this relationship to your work?
Dominic: Video is audio-visual. If you overlook sound, then you’re not utilising half of the medium.
I have used text a bit in my work, monologues specifically. When I used to make primarily performance works, they were narratives, narratives about subjectivity, how we become who we are. When my work turned more outward, a decade or so ago, the narratives expanded and took in larger contexts. I have now done 3 of these history monologues: one about Mallee pines and their place in Australian history; one about a neolithic village; and now this one about the origins of life. They are all stories that contextualise, that place us in history. That is what I am always about, understanding how we got here. It is a question I have examined from many perspectives both when I was doing work all about subjectivity to now when I do work about natural and social histories. This time I am also including music, specifically DUB. DUB and reggae are cosmological music, whether in terms of their place in Rastafarian thought or in their deployment in so-called world music. This project is my cosmology, my story of origins and so I created a soundtrack of bass, of foundations, DUB. Bass is also the bottom end, it is the foundation, and so in a story about beginnings, and as a bass player, it seemed like the obvious choice.
Experimenta Life Forms International Triennial of Media Art
Exploring how biological and artificial life are challenging human-centric thinking, Experimenta Life Forms will be Experimenta’s 8th national touring exhibition. It premieres in 2021 and will tour nationally until 2023.
‘first forms’ by Dominic Redfern is an Experimenta commission.