The cycle of natural decay is both materially enacted and mirrored in the making of Jennifer Reeves’s Landfill 16 (2011), which takes up the idea of recycling, waste management, and the death of film. Reeves buried 16mm outtakes from her double-projection celebration of the natural world, When It Was Blue (2008), in a homemade landfill in Elkhart, Indiana. She then gave the exhumed film new purpose, hand-painting the corroded and soil-stained frames. The resultant imagery scans as densely textured terraforms, like pebbled plastic covered in mold. No photography was required to re-animate this celluloid originally consigned to the literal scrap heap. Images of animals briefly appear—a deer, an eagle, an ominous black widow—all barely recognizable through the garbage-battered frames, and seemingly buried under the decaying and dirty film. With its foreboding score, which mixes bulldozers, nature sounds, factory noise, and a trapped bird tweeting in pain, Reeves addresses not only the ways in which the media of analog moving images is literally and metaphorically being disposed as it approaches its industrial obsolescence, but also the disastrous environmental consequences of modern life.
Brimming with alternatively mottled and lapidary images, Landfill 16 pulses like living thing, a horror film about, to use Jussi Parikka’s phrase, “zombie media”—here, discarded moving images coming back to life, deformed. And while she never conceived the work as a collaboration per se, Reeves acknowledges the way the project represents a conjoining of forces that includes, she says, “the world, her thinking mind, and her spiritual muse….I had a feeling it wasn’t all me…that something else was at work.”
Furthermore, Reeves’ work illuminates a politics of process. It does not merely exhibit political engagement through content, but also describes a mode of deeper philosophical inquiry regarding the role and positioning of humanity vis-a-vis the world through methods of production. Landfill 16 demonstrates that how things are made matters, and that making carries ramifications for how we think about and conduct ourselves in relation to other people, objects, and things. Art therefore provides a useful model for broadening our approach to thinking about the nonhuman, about the limits of authorship, and about attributions of agency. Works like Landfill 16 show that when we decenter the human, that when ego gives way to an “at-oneness with whatever,” we ironically gain a better sense of humanity’s place in the world.
Plants, insects, and people all die, but cinema lives, every time it is played. Is dead/is dying.; a reversal of time, a reversal of nature itself. This is what cinema can do—change time, change the way things look or appear, open us up to new kinds of sight, new kinds of visions.
All photographs carry an indexical relationship to their referents—Roland Barthes notes that he “can never deny that the thing has been there.There is a superimposition here: of reality and of the past” (Camera Lucida, 76. Emphasis in original). Barthes labels this persistent presence of the referent the essence of photography and the “That-has-been.” How does this change when there is not a camera?