Writing in 1926 of some of her early experiences of the cinema, in this case pre-WWI actualities, Virginia Woolf made some observations that might yet contribute to an ongoing discussion or even creation of a ‘nonhuman’ cinema. Recalling both the wonder and “difficulties” of early encounters with moving images, the challenges they posed for “the eye and the brain,” she concluded that the cinema shows us the world, its movements, durations and vibrations (characteristically, she chose the word, “waves”), as it is when we are not there, and so by extension reinscribes us there where we are not. “We behold them as they are when we are not there. We see life as it is when we have no part in it.” This displacement of experience required a re-organization of images and the time of their mental processing for which, to Woolf’s mind at least, the contemporary cinema, with its “parasitical” reliance upon “literature,” was proving inadequate at best. She responded positively not to cinema’s stories but to a chance view out a window (“a gardener mowing the lawn out-side, for example, or a tree shaking its branches in the sunshine”), or most famously to a hair stuck in the projector’s gate that created an inhuman blob on the screen, as if a premonition of Mothlight: “A shadow shaped like a tadpole suddenly appeared at one corner of the screen. It swelled to an immense size, quivered, bulged and sank back again into nonentity.” She thus recognized cinema’s two enduring tendencies: the one towards reality, the other toward its own formal possibilities. Crucially, both depended upon the technical base that made cinema possible. Parasites, blobs and tadpoles, however, perhaps pointed in an altogether other direction.

Like many writers of her generation, Woolf’s primary question was whether cinema was, or might become, an art. But precisely because she approached the cinema from the standpoint of a more general aesthetics, she was able to pose questions about vision, sensation and time that seem remarkably contemporary. She sensed something “beautiful” in early moving images, but also “something more real, or real with a different reality” than that which accompanied our everyday perceptions. And she asserted that at the cinema “we have time to open the whole of our mind wide to beauty.” But she also acknowledged a simultaneous and supplementary feeling, “a queer sensation,” provoked by the fact of technological recording itself, that “beauty will continue to be beautiful whether we behold it or not.” This second effect of displacement evinced by these early films revealed the cinema to be a complex temporal process: time within the image at play with the technical, and mental, time of its unfolding. But also, potentially, a temporalized aesthetics without a unifying subject. A queer sensation of not being there.

But there was more. Added to cinema as spatial and temporal displacement was a proleptic failure or historical belatedness. A kind of Atlantis of time. “We are beholding a world which has gone beneath the waves.” If cinema were to become an art, it would be an art in the wake of a catastrophe: “The war opened its chasm at the feet of all this innocence and ignorance,” Woolf wrote, recalling an old film of a wedding. “But it was thus that we danced and pirouetted, thus that the sun shone and the clouds scudded, up to the very end. The brain adds all this to what the eye sees upon the screen.” In the film image, Woolf saw a lost past; but she also looked to that image for a sign of that past’s ability, or inability, to see what was in store for it, to register its own future. The film image constituted itself in this troubled and troubling interval. 

Tornado Lake

The work of the young filmmaker and educator, Tiffany Deater, might be understood as a return to and as an extension and re-inflection of, a century later, the three challenges Woolf discerned in her own earlier experience of movies: spatial displacement (homelessness), temporal dislocation (change), historical belatedness (emergency). To paraphrase Donna Haraway, Deater’s films “stay with the trouble” Woolf discerned and that she took to be film’s ultimate vocation. Originally trained as an environmental biologist, Deater went on to study video art, creating films that evince a deep care for and an immersion in the material processes of the planet, both organic and inorganic, as well as a visual, auditory and graphic lyricism that characterize her films as registrations of those processes. Working in both Africa and North America, she has produced a body of work consistently wavering between scientific detachment and vibrant attachment. For example, 2018’s The White-Throated Sparrow Project, the documentation of a long-term conservation project and genomic, behavioral and mapping study in the northern Adirondack mountains, hews assiduously to scientific protocols and accepted documentary norms. On the other hand, Kansas Ice Storm (2017) confronts a scientific account of ant behavior (drawn from E. O. Wilson) with a deep auditory immersion in their sounds, which both invites and resists their inclusion within a human frame of signification. If, as science suggests and as the film informs us, ants can learn and even shift their priorities, what is being learned, and who exactly is learning, within this image? Similarly, at the opening of Tornado Lake (2021) a long, ultra-close-up of a fly eating while illuminated by a shaft of light, asks us to enter into its contentment, if not its beauty, displacing a long tradition of revulsion, and human exceptionalism, with which the cinema has certainly been complicit. 

This tension, between a gaze that is clinical and prophylactic and another that loses itself among adjacent sensations, is materialized in an early shot from her first film, No Real Distance (2015), of the gloved hands of zoology students working in a taxidermy lab, juxtaposed with a shot of the completed, taxidermical specimens, whose eyes look back sightlessly at us, but whose gazes we register, ambiguously, as everything from accusatory, to imploring, to seductive, to indifferent. This tension between a certain precision or exactitude and an immersive ambiguity maintains itself without ever becoming a conflict throughout her work. In the image of these working hands slowly denuding or reconstructing animal corpses, it becomes difficult to judge the distance between careful technique and an emerging form of, in Deater’s own words, “interspecies tenderness.” The film as process, as visual and auditory flux, becomes the agent of this transformation. It means to attempt, although surely not accomplish, something in excess of the conjunction of scientific objectivity and passionate longing.

Another tension characteristic of all her films and another signal of her affiliation with Woolf’s problematic, is that between a reliance upon and even investment in a literary heritage, mainly American, as a resource and fund for thinking and image making, and a deep resistance to its imperious narratives, its metaphysics and value systems. For example, in Tornado Lake, a quotation from the 18th-century American preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards is submitted to a kind of visual and sonic deconstruction, reversing and then displacing his words by confusing, implicitly in the images of snakes, insects and spiders, the gazes of God, human and animal, the “loathsome insect” or “hateful serpent” Edwards claims humans become under the divine gaze. Here, the revaluation of Edward’s complex rhetoric, its play of gazes, has the effect of displacing the human in the direction of a pulsating materiality. In the vocabulary of Deleuze and Guattari, what might be called “becoming animal,” released from, but paradoxically by way of, the theological context of sin and damnation.

No Real distance

No Real Distance, made while pursuing an MFA at Syracuse University, begins as a meditation on the filmmaker’s own biography. As a child, Deater stumbled across a dead body – an apparent suicide – in a playground on her way to school. Marked by the enigma of the encounter, she develops a fascination with dead bodies (and taxidermy) that leads her to retrieve dead animals and bury them, not so much as a ritual, but as a simple and straightforward restoration of the organic material to the earth. The film concludes with the acknowledgment that “there is no real distance” between life and death, human and animal. The emphasis here is on the “real,” an insistent but unstable materiality that displaces the imaginary boundaries of bodies and the symbolic hierarchies that order them. It is this material immanence without exception that the film is willing to call, “spirit,” already a premonition of the way Tornado Lake will shuttle the human toward a nonhuman, but hardly inhuman, animality.

No Real Distance is also an implicit commentary on the filmmaker’s working method. “I am a collector of the dead,” the film’s narration begins. But it also becomes clear that she is a collector of images and sounds. Those images and sounds, for example, flies buzzing around a sticky substance oozing from decaying board, a hawk eating its prey, a carcass encrusted in ice and snow, accompanied by a recollection of her grandmother’s embalmed body, contest attempts to seal away death, to forestall it and place it at a distance. Also contested are three boundaries – life/death, human/animal, individual/environment – by registering the profound vulnerability of life, but also by recognizing a terrible and also absurd violence when, as she says, “death becomes an event to be fought against.” The film thus works against its own taxidermical impulse, against a notion of film as, in André Bazin’s famous phrase, “change mummified.” It seems to insist upon its status as and in flux: change not quite mummified.

Kansas Ice Storm

Narrated in the filmmaker’s own voice, however, No Real Distance risks, even in its strong commitment to a cinema of exposure, both a sentimentality and a vestigial humanism that could conceivably undermine its nonhuman logic. Her next film, Kansas Ice Storm (2017), displaces that voice. The film is built up out of two tracks. The images are collected from the filmmaker’s year in Winfield, Kansas, USA, culminating in the ice storm of its title. The words, typed on the screen, are an amalgam of the filmmaker’s own and others’, collected from her reading and from old postcards she finds in the small town in which she is living. She thus displaces the presence of her own voice and accentuates the traces, both imaginary and graphic, of an experience that continually retracts itself, what Deborah Bird Rose has referred to as “shimmers,” or what object-oriented ontology phrases simply as, “shy and retiring.” As the found words of the film express it: “startled and scurrying when the darkness is pulled back.” The film descends into that darkness, lingering on a long, visually and aurally pulsing image of warring ants, before ascending, with a pair of barn owls, into the now frozen world of its titular ice storm, a shift from movement and multitude to icy stasis. The final image, of a dead robin, apparently caught in the storm, frozen to an electrical wire, recalls both the robin’s flight that ends No Real Distance and forms a poignant image of abandonment or climatological taxidermy. 

More recently, Tornado Lake enfolds three networks or webs: spiders, telecommunication, brain. The most explicitly playful of her films, it explores forms of emergence in and as reticular structures, flattening their differences and creating indiscernibles. Thus, by reorganizing sensory experiences, the film reorganizes neural and collective experiences – a motion picture of a mind-world in action, ranging from a visual and sonic close-up of a rhizome of grubs to a process shot of texting spiders. The film also restages the return of the filmmaker’s voice. 

Tornado Lake is framed, as a kind of epigraph, by four famous lines from Emily Dickinson: 

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

And indeed, the film constructs itself as a kind of cine-poem created out of images of both human and nonhuman reticular formations, but also of the acoustic real of buzzing, of air, of thunder, that constitute stanzas made of visual and aural sensations suggested by Dickinson’s lines. This is a literary parasitism quite different from the one Woolf deplored. Crucially, in its insistence upon in-between-ness, as a duration between “Heaves of Storm,” Deater’s film signals another affiliation with Woolf’s little essay on cinema. Woolf recognized a new state of the cinema emerging from a global catastrophe. Deater’s film records an emergence on the near side of a slower but no less violent and planetary one. The tempest she records, like the ice storm of the previous film, materializes the time (tempus) and temperature of  “a world which has gone beneath the waves.”

Displacements of space and time are indicative, then, of an entire, if not completely conscious strategy of reorienting the human sensorium, at least as it passes through film as a crucial technological-perceptual milieu, towards environmental elements that might be considered pre- or post-individual; that is, an emplacement within a flux that implies forms of communication that can never be certain or even given to consciousness at the macro-level at which film usually captures and organizes human forms of attention. This is what makes the buzzing, crackling, chirping, and indeed the entire sonic repertoire of the films crucial. And maybe the grain of the human voice paradoxically belongs too to this nonhuman repertoire and reservoir?

With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and along with her partner, Jarrod Hagadorn, Deater is currently constructing a curriculum in Environmental Humanities and Media, in which fieldwork and  regimen of patient and strict observation would become central elements of film education. As part of the project, Deater, Hagadorn and a small group of students filmed around an area once known as “the philosophers’ camp,” a short-lived attempt at a retreat in the Adirondacks whose residents included the painter, William James Stillman, and the philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who in 1858 explored, painted and wrote about the mountain wilderness on the eve of the American Civil War. The student filmmakers thus entered another troubling interval of the kind Woolf emphasized. But rather than submitting the experience to the symbolic filtering mechanisms of poetry and painting, the encounter is re-staged through the real of technological media, a cine-literature or cine-painting of sensations.

As it turns out, Deater is rather reserved when discussing her own work. In our conversations she expressed a certain admiration for a number of filmmakers, Laurie Anderson, Andrea Arnold, and Guy Maddin among her favorites. She herself was not certain that ‘nonhuman’ was the best way to characterize her work. She acknowledged that human beings, or at least integral images of them, never appear in her films; although she pointed out that human hands do appear in two of the films: first gloved and at work in a taxidermy lab (accompanied by the narration: ‘I do not wear gloves…’) and then manipulating, in a piece of found footage, a remote-controlled cockroach, a so-called “Roboroach.” She was quick to give her assent to the idea that there was an abiding and unresolved tension in her work between a humanist, quasi-romantic yearning for a nature at once therapeutic and, if not exactly ordered to, perhaps at least in harmony with, a human scale, but also wild and sublimely indifferent. On the other hand, she offered the idea that precisely through filming, she was trying to forge a ‘technological opening’ to environment and sensations of which we are rarely if ever conscious; and this included a conscious manipulation both temporal and spatial. She spends protracted periods in the field just waiting and observing (which includes, crucially, listening), something she says most of her students find almost impossible. In this respect film as fieldwork requires an essential disorientation. And much of that time she is lying down, at a level with ants, insects, worms, grubs and larvae, which (who?) populate an immense portion of her visual and sound images. Both the technology of filming and these techniques of the body and the senses were in the service of a displacement of the human. As she phrased it: “to get the human out of the center of the story that we tell about the world because that story has no center. I need the technology to become enmeshed or entangled with something rather unstable. It’s not just to record and capture and then show. I mean it is that too, of course, how could it not be. But also, it’s creating linkages, spinning a web, as one used to say ‘spinning a yarn.’ That’s why the films are about change, which is the final word of Tornado Lake.”

Tornado Lake

The following interview was conducted in two Zoom conversations in December of 2023. I then asked Deater if she’d like to send some written responses after looking at the transcripts, which she did. What appears below is therefore an amalgamation of the original oral responses and the later written ones. The whole has been edited for length and clarity. Deater and I have been colleagues since 2019. I have not, however, been involved in the development, production, distribution or promotion of any of her film projects. This is the first time we’ve had the opportunity to really discuss her work.

The first thing I’d like to ask you about is your method. At the beginning of No Real Distance you refer to yourself as a “collector of the dead.” I take that to also be a kind of metaphor for image collection. Could you talk a bit about how you collect those images and then assemble them into a film?

I refer to my working method as a timed meander. So two elements: time and wandering. And this includes a lot of waiting, long, long pauses, and observing. I could probably work out a more-or-less complex or coherent theory about this; but really what I do is more concrete. I’m making something material and I’ll leave it to you to create the abstractions. But let me start with something personal, because my work is anchored in that, even if those events never actually appear in the films. They are sort of like those Wordsworthian “spots of time” you read about in English class. All those daffodils. Memory expansions that allow me to fasten upon and then process images, but the sense then ends up going beyond me. Like many people, I have delt with depression, anxiety, and feelings of disconnection from other humans for most of my life. I think it is because of this that I gravitated towards relationships with plants and animals. As a child I found relief in the fields by my house and would spend much of my free time watching Spittlebugs and looking for nymphs in sticky foam. I came to love grass and the way morning light catches the furry seed heads. I have taken many images of all sorts of grasses from many places in the USA, South Africa, Namibia, New Zealand, and Ireland. The movement of wind though grass feels like my real home. 

Adventuring in the world of grass is most likely where my process for collecting images began. Each day has the potential for something unexpected. I have watched a hawk swoop down and take a pigeon, seen a meteor blaze across the sky, and once found a cecropia moth caterpillar with little white eggs attached to its back. Small but exciting encounters that remind me there is a world beyond the human – I find this very comforting.

As a child I carried a camera with me often, taking blurry pictures of squirrels and birds. This slowed down as I got older but never really stopped. Once I was able to  merge my interest with the actual resources to make films, video essays, video poems, video documentation, I was hooked. I take my camera with me wherever I go; I never know what I will see. I could never anticipate seeing a robin frozen by the beak to a telephone wire, the image that concludes Kansas Ice Storm, or a morning field shimmering with hundreds of dew diamonds hanging from spiderwebs. Keeping my camera with me helps make it possible to capture these moments. I also use trail cameras. So once, and it takes a while, I’ve determined something about the presence and behavior of some animals, I can use those as remote observatories. I’ve got some amazing stuff I’m working on now; not just birds and mammals, but snails, for instance.

But the thing is, it’s a conundrum, I’m always feeling drawn to a space or circumference that I know that I can’t, or shouldn’t, enter. But if I want to approach and connect to that sensible environment, to resonate with it, I need the technology. Writing or painting, and I used to paint a lot, just won’t do for me. For instance, the opossum filmed in Kansas Ice Storm was hiding in the bushes by the side of a building in a residential area. There was a busy road close by, and the opossum looked lost and unsettled. I had recently moved to Kansas and was feeling isolated and very lost myself. I saw the opossum and thought, “there is a kindred spirit, both of us living out a form of homelessness.”  I felt a connection to this opossum trying to survive in an unfamiliar landscape. Both scared to expose ourselves – mobilizing whatever camouflage we’ve got. I immediately remembered Thoreau’s encounter with a muskrat, something like, “I saw a muskrat come out of a hole in the ice…. While I am looking at him, I am thinking what he is thinking of me. He is a different sort of man, that’s all.” Or I’m a different sort of opossum. So I filmed the opossum from a distance with my 100-400mm lens. This is important because I don’t want to add to other’s stress and negative emotions. 

It’s interesting to hear you talk about the technology. Because, if you think about it, something like Michael Snow’s La Region Centrale, which in a way takes the human out of the filming process, could be considered the ultimate nonhuman cinema, if that’s what we’re talking about. But that’s not what you’re after?

No. I would have been in that landscape, with the insects, listening and watching. I’m not that interested in the experience of the mechanism, the machine. I need it, but as an opening. I don’t take blurry photographs any more. The blur is beautiful too; but I’m not after that.

The Thoreau quotation provokes two questions: first, your interest in ice; second in literature more generally.

Haha. The ice, yeah. I remember seeing Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg. The most memorable images in the film for me were the frozen horses in the river. I was fascinated by the images of people playing and exploring amongst the frozen dead. And I guess you can see that obsession in the ice storm, but also in the taxidermy, of my work. I’m certainly not trying to revive them or thaw them out. I looking and listening; and the films create a constellation of elements, molecules slowing down, speeding up, rearranging. I hope you could hear this too, in the soundscapes of the films?

I could. And literature? I mean, you went to school to become a biologist; and you ended up becoming a filmmaker. So where does the Thoreau, Dickinson, Edwards, Emerson, etc. come from? I’m even framing this interview with a discussion of Virginia Woolf, whom you’ve also read.

Virginia Woolf? Uh oh. So, I initially wanted to be a veterinarian. And then, at the university, I shifted toward conservation biology. I enjoyed my science classes, but it felt like something was missing. I’ve always liked to paint. I’ve always written poetry. I’m a compulsive photographer. And from the time I was a kid I was always told these things were hobbies. The message at ESF [The State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry] was similar. Aesthetic activities were not legitimate ways of making sense of the world. But the college does have an  environmental writing program, which is very small; it’s down a little hallway in the library. So I took maybe three environmental writing courses; and it may be that through writing I found my way back to making images. Because what I really got out of those courses was the realization that there were other people, having these conversations, imagining other ways of doing things, of thinking about and experiencing the environment. It was a new world of talk. But it was a world disparaged by a lot of the students and faculty. The writers were “touchy feelies,” “the emotional people.” I think my films turn the resistance of these groups to one another into a useful mutation. Literature provides powerful organizational principles out of which to construct processes of sensation in the films. But the sensations work differently in my films. I’m not sure I can exactly say how.

When Jarrod and I take students to the Floodwood Loop – we launch from Follensby Pond, the so-called Philosophers’ Camp – we have them read, which they are unused to, but is kind of a relief from lugging all the film gear around in canoes. So they read Emerson, who was there, and also Longfellow… “this is the forest primeval” and all that. Longfellow declined to go to the camp, although Stillman invited him. But he heard Emerson was bringing a gun, and he was like, no way, that guy is going to kill someone. But yeah, literature provides all sorts of resources and there’s no sense in cutting yourself off from that. It comes with a lot of baggage, ideology and all that. But so do cameras and sound equipment, which any media archaeologist will tell you. And no doubt animals come with all that too; but it’s inscribed or recorded or encoded differently. So how do we reach that? You use the word nonhuman. But that can only be a limit, right? Something we head for so we can communicate differently? In literary terms, to displace the human from the center of the story. Cinema too has to learn to tell new stories, or nonstories. But that does not mean giving up all of the resources it has created, literary ones included, to fashion the remarkable stories it has already told.

Can we go back to technology for a minute? Because it plays a big role in Tornado Lake, especially the cyborg cockroach, but also the texting spiders or the found footage of the juggling fly.

Okay. So, first, the film was less successful, in terms of festivals and awards and stuff, than the previous films. People found it disjointed, harder to get involved with, lacking overt emotion. My voice was monotone, not human enough, etc. And I think the found footage, which I’ve never used before, and the obvious manipulations of images, put people off. But in a way, it continues something that informs all of my films. And that’s two things, which I’ll just call vulnerability and process. It’s my sense of my own vulnerability, my fragility, that has always driven me into the field, those grasses I mentioned before. I’m processing that: in my body, in my mind, in my films. But the creatures around me, the entire environment, that’s vulnerable too. And it’s all in process, in flux. It’s change. So we are caught up in each other. And the 1911 Percy Smith film of the acrobatic fly… that fly is caught up… you can see the threads… it’s being tortured. And the Roboroach from 2013, that’s also caught up in invisible threads… the electrodes are sending impulses to its nervous system and it’s being directed. So what did these nonhumans experience? How did they experience us? And we’re caught up in threads too. Like the texting spiders; they’re babies, like my students. So it’s an ethical problem. And a scientific one. And an aesthetic one too. Did they feel a change? Do we feel it? 

Last question. Those two “heaves of thunder” that bookend Tornado Lake; they suggest a certain crisis condition. Are you a climate optimist or a pessimist? Is that a stupid question?

According to Aldo Leopold, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” Now we’re in it together. 

Works Cited

  • Bazin, André. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” in What is Cinema? Trans. Timothy Barnard (Montreal: Caboose Books, 2009).
  • Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. Trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).
  • Haraway, Donna J. Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene  (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).
  • Harman, Graham. Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything (London: Pelican Books, 2018).
  • Leopold, Aldo. The Round River: From the Journals of Aldo Leopold (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1953).
  • Rose, Deborah Bird. “Shimmer: When All You Love Is Being Trashed,” in Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, ed. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).
  • Woolf, Virginia, “The Cinema” (1926), reprinted in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Volume 4, 1925-1928, ed. Andrew McNeillie (London: Hogarth Press, 1994).

About The Author

Bennet Schaber is Professor of Cinema and Screen Studies at the State University of New York campus in Oswego, NY, on the southeastern shore of Lake Ontario. Tiffany Deater is a filmmaker. She has worked in Ireland, Namibia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the USA. Awards include: Best Short Film, Wildlife Conservation Film Festival; Best Animal Behavior and Ecology Film, University of Idaho Fish & Wildlife Film Festival; Best Experimental Film, NEXT International Film Festival; First Place, Science, Technology and Innovation for Better Life, International Science Film Festival. She is currently Assistant Professor of Cinema and Screen Studies at SUNY Oswego.

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