What is it that keeps us, and our physical world, together? How do we understand these connections, scientifically, personally?
These are the questions explored by UK-based video artist Sophie Clements in her triptych video installation There, After. The explosive piece (more on that later) came about as a commission by the Dutch group Pavlov E Labs and paired Clements with particle physicist Elisabetta Pallante and organic chemist Ryan Cheichi for a series of research sessions and discussions along the given theme of “Families/Lines of Belonging.”
“When you think about the concept of families within science, it is easy to think about families as groups of things, as classification. But I was interested in really trying to get to the heart of what family means—the forces that join us together, as people, molecules or atoms—the unseen bonds that are so crucial in keeping the universe together, but also metaphorically in shaping our human experience,” explains Clements.
What the team ended up with was three videos, each documenting an object going through a process of transition—a balloon bursting, fireworks exploding, or a bundle of sticks falling to the ground. Clements chose these objects with the earth’s core elements in mind (water, fire, earth) and filmed each video using a meticulous stop-motion technique that had her and her team recreating each action 160 times so it could be captured from every angle.
Stills from each video below
Clements, who studied biochemistry before switching to graphic design, says her work has always been focused on three main areas of interest: science, music, and art. An early lesson in quantum physics exposed her to the mind-bending abstract ideas and philosophical quandaries involved in theoretical physics, causing her to question the nature of physical reality. “For the first time, I was introduced to the concept of the subjective in the objective world of science,” says Clements.
Since then, the bulk of her work can be viewed as an investigation into the nature of physical reality, using video as a tool for observing an object in a different way, deconstructing our typical modes of perception in order to see something new. Clements terms her practice “video sculpture” because she’s “using video as a lens that permits the gradual observation of something that you couldn’t see with the naked eye.”
When considering a work like There, After, which treats mundane objects as objects of beauty that demand our utmost attention, it’s easy to see what she means. When viewed through the lens of Clements’ camera and elaborate, painstaking stop motion technique, these objects take on an otherworldly, physical beauty—caught in mid-air, they are poised just so, each frame a new sculptural arrangement all its own.
We spoke with Clements on the eve of her departure for Santa Fe where she’s participating in the Currents12 festival of video and new media art to find out more about her process and what this work means to her.
What was the nature of your early discussions with Ryan and Elisabetta? How did they inform your project?
My starting point was the four forces of nature (electromagnetism, strong interaction, weak interaction, and gravity) that we explore—‘families’ as the bonds between things rather than groups of things. Immediately we realised we were on the same page, as Elisabetta came with the same starting point; being a theoretical physicist, a large part of what she is concerned with is trying to understand how to unify these four forces.
So from there, we all spent a lot of time talking together about our own practice, learning about what each other does, and the theoretical and practical sides of it, but all the while relating this back to the main concept, trying to find a common dialogue, exploring the things that interested us and discussing our different viewpoints on the subject.
I found that that it was a really good mix of backgrounds and this very much influenced the nature of the project; Elisabetta came at it from quite an abstract viewpoint, as she is used to dealing with abstract theoretical ideas, whilst Ryan brought a real excitement and energy about materials. I think what was particularly interesting was that this project didn’t have a specific agenda -ie the brief wasn’t to visualise a scientific idea. So it was just people from different disciplines coming together to make something, and as a result the discussions felt shared rather than one directional (i.e. scientist sharing knowledge with artist…artist making something).
A page from Clements’ sketchbook.
How did you come up with these visual metaphors to represent the discussions you were having with the scientists?
Well the process went like this; we want to somehow show or represent the strengths of bonds, and also explore a state of transition (from being ‘together’ to being ‘apart’). But how do you visually express how strong a bond is? Sometimes it is much easier to grasp the significance of something by explaining it’s opposite. So to show the significance of a bond, break it and watch the results unfold—this is most likely a more dynamic expression of the strength of the bond (take the splitting of the atom, for example). On a human level, take the old sayings for example; ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ or ‘you don’t know what you have till it’s gone’.
Throughout the project, we were clear that the work should operate on a number of levels, that while we are talking about ideas in science or theory, we are also talking metaphorically about human experience and it’s the shared language that I find interesting. So we deliberately chose elemental materials—water, fire, and wood, and found ways to take these elements through a process of transition, all somehow describing different aspects of change or the breaking of a connection. These elements were the purest to the concept, and also they were fitting based on all the discussions we had had beforehand such as particle collision, experiments with fire, experiments with fluids and so on.
Can you explain a bit about your process here? How were these videos shot?
For the concept to work, it was really important that actual things were actually going through a process of transition. If you then take into account this idea of video sculpture and this constant observation of an object, then it made sense that we’d have a camera moving slowly around this object in transition. We drew a big circle, about 10m in diameters on the floor, then made 160 camera positions around that circle, pointing inwards. In the middle was this thing that was happening—an explosion, a water balloon bursting, sticks breaking apart. So basically what you end up with is 160 explosions, 160 balloons bursting, etc.
It took between 5-10 hours to do each one 160 times. It’s kind of like a longwinded stop motion technique—super labor intensive but also super important. The process is often where the art is for me, in going through the performance of physically making it. Then you bring it into the computer and essentially “sculpt” and hand pick frames from the footage, compare one frame against the next, and sculpt it frame by frame into the piece.
160 firecrackers ready to explode.
This piece is about families and belonging in the literal and metaphorical sense. How does it relate to your own experience? What does this interpretation say about you?
As artists, we can’t help but have our personal experience feed into our work, even if it’s just in our responses to things. A subconscious driving force behind this project was that just a few months before starting the project, I lost my mom. When I was asked to do a project about families, my first reaction was, “No way, that’s too close to home.” But when we started talking about it, I realized that never in my life had I felt the really visceral feeling of family or belonging, but I was feeling it in its absence.
And that’s why this piece, I was very careful not to tell people too much about it, but essentially the metaphor was going from a state of being held to sort of being cut loose. That very physical feeling of not belonging or not being held together. That’s partially why I felt the need to do these physical explorations of not being held together.
You can watch each individual video of There, After below: