Immersed in the Process: The Work of David Gatten

Still image from What the Water Said, Nos. 4-6
Still image from What the Water Said, Nos. 4-6

Guest post by Alex Svensson.


I first experienced the work of filmmaker David Gatten in 2010, at a weeknight screening of experimental short films held at Emerson College in Boston, MA. I remember the films that night were well suited for the bitter chill and absent sun of the city in February; though memory escapes with each passing year, I’m still greeted by flickers of icy light urgently dancing with bursts of darkness. With Gatten’s selected piece – What the Water Said, Nos. 4-6 (16mm, 2007) – at the forefront of my recollections, the mind drifts between haunted fragments of nature, swaths of grieving bodies, and obscured visions of what could pass as either the outer reaches of the universe or a level of Hell suffocated by black ice. Needless to say, the strange, beautiful discomfort of the evening still lingers.

Despite this affective residue, Gatten’s piece was the only one that truly stuck to my senses with absolute clarity – the one film whose title and filmmaker I made sure to heavily circle and underline in my notes that evening, the one work I couldn’t stop talking about with friends and colleagues for days, months, and now years later. Though What the Water Said was created with film stock and sound track, these materials were left both unexposed and away from the body of the camera. Instead, chemical reactions occurred inside crab traps submerged in the Atlantic Ocean, producing effects that I can only describe as imagined oscillations between dream-like swimming and nightmarish drowning: fluid globs of aquatic colors, from shimmering surface blues to ocean floor blacks; gurgling bubbles and harsh, sudden movements; and the simultaneous calm and terror of compressed white noise. As Gatten has routinely emphasized about the film, he merely created certain conditions for its production; nature took care of the rest:

“The exposure, the processing, the chemistry, the physical interaction—everything—was entirely the ocean. I didn’t do anything other than decide how long it should be in the water, at high tide, ebb tide, low tide. And how much film I was going to put in. The ocean and crabs decided how much film I was going to get back. They did the editing. They did the sound. I was the producer.”

As experimental filmmaker, Gatten here emphasizes the former term and blurs clear understandings of the latter; his filmography, then, could be better described as an ever-expanding collection of visual and sonic textures, recorded histories, scraps of literature and poetry, heaps of earthen materials, accidental discoveries, and languages spoken not by people, but by spaces, things, and ideas. What the Water Said emphasizes this in its title; we are not witnessing what Gatten saw through a camera lens, or what visual and aural poetry he stitched together out of perhaps expected filmic language.

Instead, Gatten’s focus on material process often enables the very settings and subjects of his productions to, in a way, find and express their own voices (which interestingly complicates understood notions of cinematic authorship). Though of course not all of Gatten’s films are products of such intentional authorial distancing and daring chance (as this week’s screening of The Extravagant Shadows will illustrate, Gatten is a wildly deliberate and diligent filmic craftsman), his works nonetheless seem to speak a language all their own. Indeed, I was struck by how much the screening at Emerson felt like a performance on the part of the film itself – one that invited and involved my own materiality as spectator as much as that of the aquatically-manipulated celluloid. In concert, multiple “bodies” (viewer, filmmaker, the film itself, the projected light, the structure of the room, etc.) co-produced an experience that was at once immersive, intimate, expansive, and dissociative. Our very sense of self gets challenged when we sit before a David Gatten film. In discussing The Extravagant Shadows, Holly Willis remarked that, in experiencing the film, we are “no longer spectators, witnesses, viewers, readers, or users. We become entirely present: upright, astute, yearning, human. We become present. We become as we should be.”

Seven years on, traces of What the Water Said still work their way within my mind and across my skin; I can see, feel, and even taste an ocean that was never there – not in that screening room, and most certainly not captured on film. Rather, the ocean had captured the film itself, my body with it. What a delightful snare to be caught up in.

I encourage you to similarly lose yourselves and become present tomorrow evening, as IU Cinema and the Underground Film Series screens The Extravagant Shadows , part of the David Gatten: Working With Words Film Series. The series will also include a 3:00 p.m. Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker Lecture by Gatten, entitled “Working With Words: Historical Documents, Systems of Knowledge, & Text-as-Moving Image Art.”


David Gatten: Working with Words Poster

Alex Svensson Alex Svensson is a PhD Candidate and Associate Instructor at Indiana University, Bloomington’s Media School, where he researches the intersections between horror and promotional culture. Much of his current work – including his dissertation – examines recent experiential marketing campaigns and gimmicks for horror content (often linked to digital networks) that understand and configure shock, fear, and disgust as affective capital. While not writing, he helps co-program screenings for the Underground Film Series.